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Image depicts the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. People walk in various directions as birds fly overhead. Pigeons, strollers, and passersby surround Boudhanath Stupa in the morning.
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“So You Want to Build a Digital Archive?” A Dialogue on Critical Digital Humanities Graduate Pedagogy

Abstract

This article presents conversations between an Assistant Professor and graduate student as they negotiate various methods and approaches to designing a digital archive. The authors describe their processes for deciding to develop a digital archive of street art in Kathmandu, Nepal through an anticolonial, feminist perspective that highlights community knowledge-making practices while also leveraging the affordances of digital representation. Written in the style of a dialogue, this article illustrates the various tensions and negotiations that interdisciplinary student-instructor teams may encounter when deciding how to design a digital archive through critical frameworks. These challenges include making decisions about how to represent cultural practices and values in online spaces, negotiating technological and cultural literacies to make an accessible, usable archive, and putting together a team of researchers who are invested in a specific digital archiving project. The purpose of the article is to extend a conversation about possible approaches and challenges that new faculty and students may encounter when engaging in digital archiving work.

Image depicts the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. People walk in various directions as birds fly overhead. Pigeons, strollers, and passersby surround Boudhanath Stupa in the morning.

Figure 1. Image of Kathmandu streets by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Bibhushana

I want to start with a particular incident to introduce and contextualize myself and my project, though this was not the only or the most significant thing to trigger my interests in my current work. It happened during my first semester in graduate school, in my second month of living in the U.S. I was waiting for the campus shuttle to get back to my apartment. A guy came up to me and started talking. After some casual exchanges, he asked,

“Where are you from?”

“Nepal,” I said.

“Where is that?” He asked.

I felt like he had to know Nepal without any further references. Then, I remembered that there are countries I don’t know about, too. Because “no one” talks about them. [The question here is also who is/are “no one?”].

And so I said, “It’s in South Asia.”

“You mean the Philippines?” He asked.

“Isn’t that a different country? Maybe you should try to Google Nepal,” I told him.

At this point, I just wanted to be done with this conversation.

“Yeah, you are right. I will,” he said.

I smiled and turned my head to the street, continuing to wait for the bus. Then, something even more dreadful occurred to me. I considered what Google might say about Nepal, aside from providing some tourist guide kind of thing. Earthquakes? Floods? The Chhaupadi system? Discrimination against women? Some local rituals? And so on. Well, all of these statements are true. But is that all that’s true about Nepal? What about the other multiple narratives that are easily overshadowed by the dominant and much disseminated, algorithmic, exotic, and damaging narrative of Nepal? Don’t I, you, she, he, they, it, we, that, this also exist? I feared that this man from the bus stop might Google Nepal and start feeling sorry for me in a way I would never feel for myself.

I hastily turned towards the stranger and said, “Actually, I don’t recommend you Googling. Google doesn’t tell you much about the places you don’t know and want to know more about.” I knew he wouldn’t Google anyway. Perhaps he did not even remember my country’s name anymore. But from then on, I knew that I would never again say, “why don’t you Google Nepal?” to a stranger.

I always knew there is something “wrong” with Google. Consider, for example, Safiya Umoja Noble’s (2018) Algorithms of Oppression, where she discusses the multiple ways in which digital algorithms oppress non-Western communities and communities of color. The representation of Nepali culture in digital spaces started becoming a major concern for me after I moved to the U.S. I felt like postcolonialism and its debates (which I had studied in Nepal) started making much more sense after my move to a “new” or “foreign” country. In the U.S., people frequently conclude things about me based on my skin color and the way I speak English in an “un-English” way. Why would—or what makes—someone conclude things about me in an absolute manner before even knowing me? These questions and experiences, among many others, triggered my curiosity in and decision to make interventions in digital archiving. Specifically, I decided to create a digital archive of street photography in Kathmandu, Nepal (non-West) from the physical location of the U.S. (West). The purpose of this archive is to illustrate the many artistic expressions and ways of being that may not traditionally or inherently be used to describe my culture and my country in current digital spaces.

Through some preliminary research, I found some digital representations of Nepal that may be considered archives, even if they are not formally identified as such (see De Kosnik’s (2016) discussion of “metaphorical instances of ‘archives’ in the digital age”). What I found is that most of these digital representations of Nepal are created and maintained by non-Nepalis, most of whom are situated in Western contexts. For example, the Digital Archeology Foundation was founded after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal to collect data “for research, heritage preservation, heritage appreciation, reconstruction planning, educational programs and 3D replication to aid in rebuilding and restoration work.” Data collected through this site is “sent to the IDA in Oxford for referencing and preservation.” The site is privately funded by David Ways through his travel-guide project The Longest Way Home. Another example, Archive-IT, hosts an archive of the “2015 Nepal Earthquake.” The purpose of the archive is to host “a collection of web resources related to the April 25th, 2015 earthquake and its after effects in Nepal. Contributors to this collection include Columbia University Library, Yale University Library, and the Bodleian Library,” none of whom are identified as being from Nepal.

Academic representations of Nepal in online spaces also portray essentializing notions of Nepali culture. For example, many U.S. Universities established websites of their South Asian Studies departments (see for example: https://www.southasia.upenn.edu/, http://southasia.rutgers.edu/, https://www.brown.edu/academics/south-asia/, and http://piirs.princeton.edu/sas). While much of the information on these sites is useful, all of these sites include photographs depicting Nepali culture (or South Asian cultures) as subjects of inquiry, with images of traditional Nepali religious rituals and ceremonies countering images of classroom discussion and intellectual engagement used to depict U.S. students in U.S. classrooms. In short, contemporary digital representations of Nepal remain largely what Said (1978) describes as a “great collective appropriation of one country by another,” leaving much room to expand and (re)build Nepali online identities (84).

Laura

During my graduate program at a large, public, Predominantly White Institution (PWI) in the Midwest, I had the opportunity to participate in and lead a few Digital Humanities projects. As a South American, White-presenting Latina immigrant in the U.S., it was my dream to apply my training in Digital Humanities in a context that would directly benefit (and stem from) minoritized communities. I dreamt of designing digital platforms that were not only designed “for” minoritized communities, but that were also co-designed with communities for our communities’ specific expertise, desires, and ideas. After graduating and coming to work at a university in the Southwest with an 80% Latinx student population, and in a graduate program that has the privilege of hosting a large international student population, predominantly from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Mexico, I was immediately motivated to start working with our brilliant students to not only critique the current normalized Western-dominant state of technology innovation in and beyond Digital Humanities, but to also build, along with students and communities, tools, technologies, and platforms that were designed by and for non-Western, non–English-dominant audiences.

It was in this context that I met Bibhushana, a brilliant PhD student who has interest and experience in Digital Humanities and who also entered our PhD program with extensive experience in critical theory (one of my favorite first memories of Bibhushana is from one of the first days I had her in class, when she told a story and casually mentioned that a year back she was “having lunch with Spivak and discussing critical theory”). In short, Bibhushana, like many of our international students pursuing graduate education in the U.S., has extensive training, experiences, and ideas that can and should inform U.S.-based institutions and disciplines and their orientations to Digital Humanities research. Yet, even in my short time at an institution that hosts a much more diverse student population than where I had my own graduate training, I note drastic discrepancies in how this innovative digital building work is supported when it stems from “non-traditional” students—students who are positioned by the institution to need “traditional” training in canonical disciplinary texts and practices (Sanchez-Martin et al. 2019). The flexibility, trust, and material support for innovative DH work is something that needs to be fostered and grown in the context in which Bibhushana and I met, and, we imagine, in other contexts hosting historically minoritized student populations.

As researchers with interdisciplinary research interests and from significantly different backgrounds, we are working to establish ethical protocols for building digital archives that are culturally sustaining rather than representative, and that intentionally avoid cultural essentialism. The stories and perspectives that we share in this dialogue illustrate some of the ways in which we are aiming to practice this type of ethical protocol both in the development of an archive and by reflecting on our participatory, community-driven methods. Drawing on Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E Kirsch’s (2012) notion of strategic contemplation, we write this piece in the style of a dialogue to search for, reflect upon, and make visible the ways in which feminist rhetorical practices and relationships influence this critical digital archiving project and Critical Digital Humanities projects more broadly. According to Royster and Kirsch (2012), strategic contemplation “allows scholars to observe and notice, to listen to and hear voices often neglected or silenced, and to notice more overtly their own responses to what they are seeing, reading, reflecting on, and encountering during their research processes” (86). In this way, using strategic contemplation through our dialogue structure helps us both reflect on and illustrate the importance of embracing a critical awareness during decision-making processes in DH work.

Bibhushana

October 5, 2017

Dear Dr. Gonzales,

I am Bibhushana, RWS doctoral candidate, 1st semester …. I just wanted to ask you ‘are you into DH?’ I was just searching for someone in UTEP to talk about it. It’s my newly found curiosity about which I don’t know much. Right after [attending a] DH seminar in Nepal, I was curious (and excited) to know about UTEP’s approach to ‘rhetoric and technology’. Only couple of days back, I got to know that you will be teaching the class. I am very much looking forward to be in your class next semester.

Sincerely,

Bibhu

From the time I got into my PhD program in the U.S., I started searching for people who are working or willing to work in DH. For me, it was difficult to even imagine having to spend my doctoral years without being engaged in conversation with DH scholarship, theories, and praxis. I am not implying that every researcher should do DH work, but I do think that every university space should have some established DH infrastructures. My email to Dr. Gonzales was driven by my desire to work in DH after learning about this field during my last two months in Nepal. During this time, I participated in a #DHNepal2017 Summer Institute led by Professor Scott Kleinman, director of the Center for Digital Humanities at California State University at Northridge. During this workshop, I became interested in creating DH projects through postcolonial and feminist lenses that connect to my own disciplinary background in critical theory. However, I also realized that in order to create such projects, I would need to be connected to other DH scholars and have access to DH infrastructures and resources after the conclusion of the workshop. Professor Arun Gupto, director of the Institute of Advanced Communication Education and Research (IACER) in Nepal, where the #DHNepal2017 workshop was hosted, insisted that despite our lack of formal DH infrastructures in Nepal, we should keep trying to establish DH projects and programs in collaboration with other scholars. Having more opportunities to engage with DH projects would allow students and scholars to establish a broader network and audience for the critical humanities work that is already taking place in Nepal and in South Asia more broadly. Thus, as I began my doctoral program in the U.S. with many questions, I continued seeking opportunities to bring together work in DH, literary theory, and critical cultural studies.

Laura

When I first received the email from Bibhu asking if I was “into” DH, I wasn’t sure how to respond. Sure, I had worked on DH projects myself, but did I really have the training and expertise to guide a graduate student into this field? What would this guidance require, and how should I prepare? And, perhaps more importantly, what resources could I really provide Bibhu, particularly given the fact that I was only in my second year as an Assistant Professor in my current institution, and that I hadn’t heard the term DH be used on our campus? I was excited that Bibhu had interests in DH and that she would be in my “Rhetoric and Technology” course the following semester. In that course, I try to incorporate opportunities for students to define for themselves what the terms “Rhetoric and Technology” might mean in their careers, finding ways to combine our course readings with their own projects and interests. Although the “Rhetoric and Technology” course that is incorporated into our PhD program in Rhetoric and Writing Studies does not always cover Digital Humanities scholarship, my hope was that Bibhu would continue to develop her interests in DH and find ways to make connections in our course content. So, on the first day of class, I asked Bibhu (along with all my students) to describe their interests, and I encouraged them to continue pursuing this work throughout our class. Bibhu mentioned she was interested in DH and was thinking about building a “non-representational Nepali digital archive.” I was immediately intrigued, and I suggested that she might look into building this type of archive as her final course project. Our first class took place on January 17, 2018.

Bibhushana

January 19, 2018

Hi Dr. Gonzales,

It’s Bibhushana.

I wanted to tell you that I liked … your idea [from class] about creating a database from South Asia. I talked to my professor Arun Gupto about it and he too liked the idea. We discussed about the ways I can use it in my other research projects as well. But the problem is I have absolutely no idea about creating a database. I am excited about this project because it is a kind of initiation towards working with technology the way I have never done before. Even if it’s very intimidating to start from the scratch, I am looking forward to it. So, I will be needing your guidance from the very first step. It would be wonderful if you could tell me how and where do I start. What should be my first step? I know it’s going to be very challenging and I might tire you with my questions too. 🙂

Regards,

Bibhu

Laura

Shortly after I received the message from Bibhu expressing her continued interest in building her digital archive (i.e., database), I decided to try to connect her with our university library resources to provide some background in the “technicalities” training that Bibhu mentions above. I know that Bibhu has extensive training in postcolonial and decolonial scholarship, and that she is incredibly qualified to build the archive she wants to build. However, I also recognize and understand her hesitance toward identifying as a “tech-savvy” DH scholar who can build an archive from scratch. Further, I recognize Gabriela Raquel Ríos’s important clarification that terms like “colonial” and “decolonial,” while now deployed frequently “in recent scholarship on the rise of new media and digital humanities,” should not be used metaphorically without considering “the relationship between colonization and indigeneity (broadly) that the trope evokes” (Cobos et al. 2018, 146). As Ríos explains in Cobos et al., (2018), “for scholars of indigenous rhetoric, the trope of colonization matters differently … than it might for other scholars, and it probably matters differently for students and faculty who are marked as indigenous or who identify as indigenous as well” (146). Thus, to say that we want to build Bibhu’s archive through anticolonial frameworks means that we have to have the resources, awareness, skills, and community commitments and connections to do so in ethical, participatory ways.

Although our immediate university resources at the time were not able to provide much training in programming and digital archive design, what Bibhu and I learned through our early conversations is that the core of developing this archive lies in the willingness to try something new, and in the understanding that despite what may be perceived as a “lack” of “tech-savvy” knowledge, students like Bibhushana have the critical and cultural knowledge and experiences to help digital archivists rethink their approaches to cultural (re)presentation in online spaces. What Bibhushana had, even in our early conversations, was a willingness to engage and experiment with various interfaces and to fail and try again when certain digital elements did not work as she as initially hoped. She also has a clear understanding and commitment to avoiding fetishization and false claims of representation in her work. Thus, as we began exploring platforms and resources, Bibhushana and I were able to also continue expanding our theoretical, practical, and disciplinary frameworks for approaching this archiving project.

Bibhushana and Laura Discuss Critical DH Methodologies

As we began the process of conceptualizing and collaborating on Bibhushana’s archive, we found it important to also read and write together about the specific epistemological groundings that this project would entail. For example, to work toward decolonizing knowledge production and representation in Digital Humanities research and pedagogy, we embraced a shift from Digital Humanities (DH) to Critical Digital Humanities (CDH). Arguing that the Digital Humanities, as evidenced in its “digital humanities associations, conferences, journals, and projects,” lacks cultural critique, Alan Liu (2012) writes,

While digital humanists develop tools, data, and metadata critically (e.g., debating the “ordered hierarchy of content objects” principle; disputing whether computation is best used for truth finding or, as Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann put it, “deformance”; and so on), rarely do they extend their critique to the full register of society, economics, politics, or culture. (n.p.)

In building our archive, we want to remain mindful of the ongoing, continuous relationship between critiquing and building, embracing the value of strategic contemplation while also remaining grounded in the everyday tasks and skills that DH projects require. As Liu posits, to frame the beginning of our project, we wondered, “How [do] the digital humanities advance, channel, or resist today’s great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate, and global flows of information-cum-capital?” and how do we build an archive that tells many stories, from multiple perspectives, without claiming to represent a perceivably homogenous country, culture, and community?

To work toward these aims, we looked to examples of existing critical digital archives and decolonial DH projects, including: Slave Voyages (Emory Center for Digital Scholarship), which maps the “dispersal of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic world”; Torn Apart/Separados, “a deep and radically new look at the territory and infrastructure of ICE’s financial regime in the USA” that seeks to peel “back layers of culpability behind the humanitarian crisis of 2018”; Mapping Inequality, which offers “an extraordinary view of the contours of wealth and racial inequality in Depression-era American cities and insights into discriminatory policies and practices that so profoundly shaped cities that we feel their legacy to this day”; and SAADA: South Asian American Digital Archive, which “digitally documents, preserves, and shares stories of South Asian Americans.” In addition to these post projects, we are inspired by feminist digital archives such as Rise Up!, a digital archive of “feminist activism in Canada from the 1970s to the 1990s”; and Digital Feminist Archives, which offers “a snapshot of feminist history in the 1960s and 1970s.” Together, these projects, along with others listed in a Women’s Studies online database of the University of Michigan Library, provide us with useful models and inspiration for developing a digital archive of Nepal street photography that is both feminist and decolonial in its orientation to and claims about cultural (re)presentation.

Bibhushana

Through my decision to build a digital archive in the U.S., I thread my own experiences of gender discrimination in Nepal with racial and gender relations in the U.S. Engaging with “questions at the intersections of theory and praxis as we consider how tools can be theorized, hacked, and used in service of decolonization,” (Risam and Cardenas 2015), my goal is to problematize “imperialist archives that establish Western tradition by collecting and preserving artifacts from othered traditions” (Cushman 2013, 118). As Miriam Posner (2016) argues, CDH (and, we argue, decolonial digital archiving specifically) is “not only about shifting the focus of projects so that they feature marginalized communities more prominently; it is about ripping apart and rebuilding the machinery of the archive and database so that it does not reproduce the logic that got us here in the first place.” This is no easy task.

As alluring the idea of building a digital archive might sound, it is even more challenging. Digital archiving is collaborative work, and this kind of project needs a team, which I was still in search of at my new institution. In addition, I had another conceptual dilemma. As Kurtz (2006) explains in his discussion of the relationship between postcolonialism and archiving, archiving “is a literal re-centering of material for the construction and contestation of knowledge, whereas postcolonialism often works toward a figurative decentering of that same material” (25). With digital archiving, this contradiction between postcolonialism and archiving takes another dimension. As challenging it is, my aim in this project is not (only) to build a digital archive, but to document the journey itself, acknowledging my own positionality in this process. It is important not only to talk about what should be done to decolonize digital archives, but also to document and tell the stories of what happens when one undertakes this journey. My confusion and lack of tech-savviness is not only my personal story, but it is also a story that reveals a lot about resources within and beyond academia and many other socio-cultural-economic ecologies, particularly those situated in non-Western contexts.

Currently, I am building a prototype of the digital archive, which can be found at http://cassacda.com/. I named the project Rethinking South Asia via Critical Digital Archiving: Political, Ethical, Philosophical, and Aesthetic Journeys to emphasize the necessity of studying and building digital archives through critical lenses that help me relentlessly dig out and exhibit the complexities involved in the performance of archiving. If the goal is to decolonize and depatriarchalize digital archives and/in DH, then the purpose of my digital archive is to demonstrate such complexities and to show that there is no way one can represent any phenomena, country, or culture in an ethical way.

In order to work toward building this archive through anticolonial and feminist frameworks, I designed my site with an emphasis on collaboratively selecting and showcasing visuals and metadata. My goal is to avoid any insinuation of a singular, homogeneous representation of my home country and its various communities. Based on feedback from an initial IRB-approved online usability study that I conducted with participants in Nepal, I plan to insert my audiences’ experiences of and responses to the photographs in my archive as metadata. In this way, I seek to tell multiple narratives through various layers of the archive, remaining only one of many authors and designers on this project. Currently, I include both Nepali and English in the archive, and hope to extend to include other languages through further usability testing and collaboration.

Rather than categorizing collections in the archive through conventional tropes of religion, rituals, and landscapes, I continuously change photographs on the landing page of the archive, all of which depict Nepali community members partaking in everyday tasks like strolling down the streets, making tea in roadside stalls, and riding motorcycles. Figure 2 is a screenshot of the recent landing page of the archive, where four images showcase community members engaging in everyday activities in the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal.

Figure 2: The image depicts the landing page of our digital archive. Four pictures of the streets in Kathmandu are positioned in block format and labeled, Boudhanath Stupa," and "Streets in Thamel, Asan, & Indrachowk."

Figure 2. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Through a feminist perspective, I also seek to counter conventional notions of Nepali women in my archive, specifically by showcasing images of women in their everyday lives perceivably defying traditional narratives and representations. Figures 3, 4, and 5, for example, portray women of various ages riding in cars and motorcycles, changing a flat tire, shopping, making tea, and going to school.

Figure 3: Two side-by-side images, one depicting a woman in the back of a car holding a baby and waving; the other depicting two young girls with braids walking with backpacks on.

Figure 3. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Figure 4: Two side-by-side images, one depicting a woman riding a motorcycle down the street and another depicting a person changing the tire of a mini-bus.

Figure 4. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Figure 5: Two side-by-side images depict women at an early morning coffee stall at San market and walking through its residential square

Figure 5. Archive landing page by Bibhushana Poudyal.

Images such as those portrayed in Figures 3, 4, and 5 are prevalent throughout my archive, and further illustrate the ways in which I seek to rebuild and reposition common portrayals of Nepal in online spaces. My goal is to shift my potential audiences’ and my own expectations and wishes to see Nepal portrayed in certain ways. One of the hardest dilemmas I face in building this archive is the challenge of both weaving and representing visual stories of Nepal through my images without narrowing or limiting representations in one way or another. To deal with that to a certain extent, the images on the landing page keep changing so that the archive does not stick to one (or my) way of de/re/presenting Nepal and Nepalis. As I continue uploading thousands of images, my so-called authorship will be challenged in a subtle and necessary way as I continue building the archive through feedback from various audiences.

Despite my attempts to unpack and decenter a singular perspective of culture, there is always a problem with the concept of representation, particularly in archiving. Archiving is always situated. There is always what Mignolo (2003) defines as a “locus of enunciation” (5). The locus of enunciation, according to Mignolo (2002), references “the geopolitics of knowledge and the colonial difference” in the push for representation, which is never neutral (61). My goal through this project thus is to demonstrate that locus of enunciation and problematize the assurance of representation through depictions that may be deemed unconventional or unusual or that counter established assumptions about a specific group of people.

Currently, the archive hosts several photography collections that illustrate the streets of Kathmandu like those presented in Figures 2, 3, 4, and 5. My overarching definition of critical digital archiving is on the landing page of the archive, stating from the beginning that the purpose of the site is not to represent, but rather to present possibilities to question the whole idea of representation via archiving of my own street photography. On the archive’s About page, I offer guiding questions and exigencies for the project, which include the goal of “building a depatriarchal-decolonial digital archive … in a non-representational manner.”

After conducting a landscape analysis of free and open-source CMS blogging platforms (like Squarespace, WordPress, Wix, Weebly, Drupal) and noting and comparing the affordances and constraints of these platforms, I decided to build the archive using Omeka. Omeka is a “web publishing platform and a content management system (CMS), developed by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University,” that was “developed specifically for scholarly content, with particular emphasis on digital collections and exhibits” (Bushong and King 2013). Because Omeka is a CMS designed for projects like my archive, I did not have to worry about my “lack” of coding literacy to start building an archive of Nepali street photography. At the same time, however, Omeka does not have abundant online tutorials available. So, it took a long time to figure out how to create items, collections, and exhibitions in this platform and to change themes and insert plugins. Further, working on this project in an institution that does not have formal infrastructures to support digital research emerging from the humanities made it more difficult and isolating to undergo the process of learning Omeka’s features and possibilities. Besides extensive metadata space (with the Dublin Core element set of fifteen metadata sets), Omeka has plugins like Neatline that allow users to weave narratives with maps and timelines and interact with different elements within the archive. My goal after setting up this initial prototype is to continue working with plugins like Neatline as I also continue having conversations and collaborating with various stakeholders who can contribute to the dynamic nature of this project.

Laura

In addition to setting up the initial infrastructure, we are also in the process of conducting participatory design and usability studies with several stakeholders who may be interested and invested in the project. As I agreed to continue working with Bibhu on this project as her dissertation advisor, I also made the decision to leave my current institution in the upcoming year. Together, Bibhu and I realized that we needed to find more resources if we were really going to have the time and space to devote to this project cross-institutionally during Bibhu’s time as a PhD student. Thus, as Bibhu was setting up the infrastructure of her project, I started seeking grant opportunities that could help us expand on her work. It was at this point that I found a grant opportunity that allowed us to work with a team of designer and user-experience researchers to develop future plans for this project. Most importantly, this grant will allow Bibhu and I to travel to Nepal in the summer of 2019 to conduct design, usability, and user experience testing with community members in Kathmandu, Nepal, allowing us to incorporate critical perspectives from Nepali communities as we continue building this project from the U.S. Through a participatory research framework (Rose and Cardinal 2018; Simmons and Grabill 2007), user testing in Nepal will allow us to get on-the-ground perspectives from Nepali communities about the things that they value in online representations of their home country. Furthermore, conducting in-person usability tests and participatory interviews with participants in Nepal will allow us to establish a team and a network for updating and maintaining future iterations of the archive.

Bibhushana

During our trip to Nepal, we will share prototypes of the archive with Nepali students, professors, and community members, as well as with other (non-Nepali) individuals who want to know more about Nepal. We are hoping that these user tests will help us make careful and responsible decisions regarding photographs and the nature of metadata. In a previous stage of the project, I conducted an online usability study that asked participants in Nepal to visit my archive and answer questions regarding the structure and usability of the site in its current stage. Questions included in this study helped me make decisions about the header text and landing page of the archive, where participants commented that the archive allowed audiences to see “the unnoticeable everyday life of local people in Nepal.” The full list of survey questions can be accessed here.

Although the online survey allowed me to gain some insights into Nepali community members’ perceptions of my archive, I was only able to get 16 responses to my study, despite my many efforts to disseminate my online survey through various platforms. This limited response echoes discrepancies in digital access that are common in communities in my home country who may not feel comfortable sharing their perspectives through online mediums that have historically fetishized and misrepresented non-Western contexts. For this reason, visiting Nepal in person to share the archive and conduct further testing will allow us to gain more responses that can continue shaping the direction of this project.

Through further in-person usability tests, we also hope to see if and how the digital archive is producing and/or reproducing traditional (i.e., colonial) representations of Nepali practices, and if/how the archive encourages further imagining of the multiple narratives embodied in places and people across cultures. Although we may not have all the necessary material and physical resources to consult with at our current institution, by increasing the visibility of this project in its prototype stages, and by working with participants in Nepal to continue designing and testing the archive, we hope to build and connect with networks of DH scholars beyond our local context who have experience designing archives and who may be interested in contributing to the development of this project. As this will be my first trip back to Nepal since coming to study in the U.S., I hope that this will be an opportunity to share my work with scholars and researchers in Nepal who are working in the area of Nepali Studies and South Asian Studies, continuing to develop frameworks for participatory, cross-institutional DH research.

Conclusion

Fostering the space to innovate digital archiving practices is a collaborative effort that requires individual researchers and institutions to move beyond binaries and disciplinary boundaries, engaging in a paradigmatic shift necessary to decolonize knowledge and its production and dissemination. As Jamie “Skye” Bianco (2012) explains, “This is not a moment to abdicate the political, social, cultural, and philosophical, but rather one for an open discussion of their inclusion in the ethology and methods of the digital humanities” (102). As Bianco (2012) continues, “we [in the Digital Humanities] are not required to choose between the philosophical, critical, cultural, and computational; we are required to integrate and to experiment,” particularly through ethical frameworks that value and centralize community knowledge (101).

Our project engages in rigorous conversations and questions that have been central to the work of the humanities, particularly in relation to cultural criticism, capitalism, and digital making. Critical digital archiving, and the process of engaging in CDH work more broadly, does not provide any static formula to decolonize or depatriarchalize digital archives, and neither do we. Instead, developing ethical protocols for creating DH projects, at least as we document in this article, requires researchers and student-teacher teams to explore multiple methods that purposely work against fetishization and essentialism through collaboration and participatory research.

By presenting a dialogue and preliminary plan for creating an anticolonial digital archive of Nepali street photography, we hope to engage in further conversations about the non-hierarchical interdisciplinary methodologies, inquiries, concerns, theories, and praxes that can be incorporated into CDH research. Through our collective conversations, we hope to further illustrate how issues of access, innovation, and cultural training intersect in the design and dissemination of contemporary digital archives and archiving practices, and how collaboration and participatory research, which have always been at the heart of DH, can also be critical components of building CDH infrastructures in perceivably “non-traditional” spaces. We hope that other teacher-researcher DH teams can thus learn from and build on our stories.

Bibliography

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Bushong, Anthony, and King, David. 2013. “Intro to Digital Humanities.” UCLA Center for Digital Humanities.
http://dh101.humanities.ucla.edu/?page_id=104.

Copozzi, Mae. 2014. “A Postcolonial ‘Distant Reading’ of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Anglophone Literature.” Postcolonial Digital Humanities. http://dhpoco.org/blog/2014/04/08/a-postcolonial-distant-reading-of-eighteenth-and-nineteenth-century-anglophone-literature/.

Critical Digital Archiving. http://cassacda.com/.

Cobos, Cassie, Gabriela Raquel Ríos, Donnie Johnson Sackey, Jennifer Sano- Franchini & Angela M. Haas. 2018. “Interfacing Cultural Rhetorics: A History and a Call.” Rhetoric Review 37, no. 2: 139–154.

Cushman, Ellen. 2013. “Wampum, Sequoyan, and Story: Decolonizing the Digital Archive.” College English 76, no. 2: 115–135.

DeVoss, Dànielle, Angela Haas, and Jacqueline Rhodes. 2019. “Introduction by the guest editors.” TechnoFeminism: (Re)Generations and Intersectional Futures.
http://cconlinejournal.org/techfem_si/00_Editors/.

Kurtz, Matthew. 2006. “A Postcolonial Archive? On the Paradox of Practice in a Northwest Alaska Project”. Archivaria, 61.
https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12535.

Decolonising Archives. 2016. L’Internationale. 2016.
https://www.internationaleonline.org/media/files/decolonisingarchives_pdf_def_02.pdf [pdf].

De Kosnik, A. 2016. Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Digital Feminist Archives. Bernard Center for Research on Women. http://bcrw.barnard.edu/digital-feminist-archives/.

Liu, Alan. 2012. “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?”. In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/20.

Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America
https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=4/36.71/-96.93&opacity=0.8.  

Mignolo, Walter D. 2003. The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

—. 2002. “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, 101 (1): 57–96.

Noble, Safiya Umoja. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press.

Posner, Miriam. 2016 “What’s Next: The Radical Unrealised Potential of Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 
http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/54.

Risam, Roopika and micha cardenas. 2015. “De/Postcolonial Digital Humanities.” http://dhtraining.org/hilt/course/depostcolonial-digital-humanities/.

Risam. Roopika. 2018. New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Rise Up! https://riseupfeministarchive.ca/.

Rose, Emma and Alison Cardinal. 2018. “Participatory Video Methods in UX: Sharing Power with Users to Gain Insights into Everyday Life.” Communication Design Quarterly, 6, no. 2: 9-20.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones and Gesa E. Kirsch. 2012. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

SAADA: South Asian American Digital Archive. https://www.saada.org/.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.

Sanchez-Martin, Cristina, Hirsu, Lavinia, Gonzales, Laura, & Sara P. Alvarez. 2019. “Pedagogies of Digital Composing through a Translingual Approach.” Computers and Composition: 1–18.

Sayers, Jentery. 2016. “Dropping the Digital.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/88.

Simmons, W. Michele, and Jeffrey T. Grabill. 2007. “Toward a Civic Rhetoric for Technologically and Scientifically Complex Places: Invention, Performance, and Participation.” College Composition and Communication: 419–448.

Slave Voyages. Emory Center for Digital Scholarship. https://www.slavevoyages.org/.

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About the Authors

Bibhushana Poudyal is currently a doctoral student and Assistant Instructor in the Rhetoric and Writing Studies program at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Her research areas are: rethinking South Asia, depatriarchal/feminist and de/post/anticolonial critical digital archiving, Critical Digital Humanities, and Digital Humanities in transnational contexts. She is also a researcher and Honorary Overseas Digital Humanities Consultant at two South Asian research centers CASSA (Center for Advanced Studies in South Asia) and SAFAR (South Asian Foundation for Academic Research).

Laura Gonzales studies and practices multilingual, community-driven technology design. She is the author of Sites of Translation: What Multilinguals Can Teach Us About Digital Writing and Rhetoric (University of Michigan Press 2018), which was awarded the 2016 Sweetland/University of Michigan Press Digital Rhetoric Collaborative Book Prize. In the Fall of 2019, Laura will be an Assistant Professor of Digital Writing and Cultural Rhetorics in the English Department at the University of Florida. You can learn more about her work at www.gonzlaur.com.

Distorted image of institutional logo
0

Born-Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom

Abstract

This case study describes a first-year seminar titled “Born Digital,” taught by a university library faculty member within a digital humanities curricular initiative at a small liberal arts college. This course explored the concept of “born-digital archives” and asked the following questions: How will future scholars understand the twenty-first century world of fragmented and fragile knowledge production and storage? What can creators do to ensure their content will continue to serve as record of their community? How do archivists adjust to a new paradigm where collecting decisions must be made in an instant?

The course embedded significant training in digital competencies and information literacy skills within a seminar on digital memory and archival theory. We examined issues related to the ethics of appraisal, privacy, digital obsolescence, underrepresented communities, media studies, and collective memory. A series of hands-on lab sessions gave students the technical skills to create their own web archives on the Archive-It platform. For undergraduates, a course on born-digital archives can provide a critical window into understanding modern archival practices and concerns, as well as our personal and collective responsibilities as media producers and consumers. This article addresses the lessons learned when adapting professional practices for an undergraduate audience.

Introduction

“The average lifespan of a webpage is 100 days.” This striking statistic has made its way into several popular magazine articles in the last few years. These articles, published in places like The Atlantic (LaFrance 2015) and The New Yorker (Lepore 2015) are alarmist in tone, but they do dispel the notion that the web is a place of permanence. The mourning period for Geocities may be over, but the recent shuttering of Storify, and Photobucket’s “breaking of the Internet” by blocking image links for thousands of users following a subscription restructuring (Notopoulos 2017) remind us that our content will not be available in perpetuity. Even the source of this statistic was hard to track down due to link rot.[1]

It was experiences similar to this one—the troublesome journey through dead links to verify a citation—that inspired the creation of a first-year undergraduate seminar on the topic of born-digital archives, as a way to engage students in the realities of accessing and constructing a historical record. One of the exciting outcomes of the popularity of digital humanities projects in the undergraduate classroom is the increased engagement with the material and staff of local archives and special collections. For college students born in the twenty-first century, these DH projects create a tangible connection with a past where letters, ledgers, and newspapers were the primary modes of mass communication and record keeping. But what about the artifacts of our time? We produce millions of records on a daily basis in the form of email, social media, and the detritus of a 24-hour news cycle. Will these records even survive 100 days? How will future scholars understand the twenty-first century world of fragmented, fragile, and ephemeral knowledge production and storage? What can creators do to ensure their content will survive as a record of their community? How do archivists adjust to a new paradigm where collecting decisions must be made in an instant? Digital archivists are starting to figure out how to handle the vast volumes of data at risk. Just as importantly, they are working to establish best practices for ethical collecting. Is anything on the web fair game for capture? Is it right to ignore robots.txt? For undergraduates, a course on born-digital archives can provide a critical window into understanding modern archival practices, as well as their own responsibilities as media producers and consumers.

This View from the Field will describe a first-year seminar titled “Born Digital,” taught by a university library faculty member within a digital humanities curricular initiative at Washington and Lee University.[2] Since this course was taught at the introductory level in a multi-disciplinary environment, its methods and assignments could be adapted to a variety of classes. The course embedded significant training in digital competencies and information literacy skills within a seminar on digital memory and archival theory. We began with reflective conversations on the experience of being a “digital native,” and then moved on to exploring the concepts and skills necessary to create a born-digital archive using the Archive-It platform.[3] This case study will share the lessons learned while adapting professional archival practices for an undergraduate audience.

Course Design and Framing

How do born-digital objects and records change the way we approach teaching? There is an abundance of literature on teaching with archival material and digital technologies. A search for model courses returns digital history courses similar to Shawn Graham’s “Crafting Digital History”[4] and graduate-level courses on digital preservation from library and information programs. Creating a seminar on born-digital archives required adapting these graduate-level models to an undergraduate audience unfamiliar with the professional and methodological practices of archivists and historians.

Because our course explored new territory, it was essential to find readings that exposed students to the rich scholarly conversation around archival principles without weighing them down with jargon. Several texts met these criteria and were instrumental in shaping the course. Abbey Smith Rumsey’s When We Are No More (2016) provides a high-level view of our relationship with information. From the ancient Greeks to the development of modern science, Rumsey contextualizes the modern information revolution for students who were born after the invention of Google and reminds us that “we have a lot of information from the past about how people have made these choices before” (Rumsey 2016, 7). For the nuts and bolts of digital preservation, we relied on Trevor Owens’s Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (2017), available as a pre-print at the time of the course. Not only is Owens well respected in the digital preservation world, his writing is engaging and approachable for undergraduates. Owens’s purpose for the text, offering “a path for getting beyond the hyperbole and the anxiety of ‘the digital’ and establish[ing] a baseline of practice” (Owens 2017, 6) fit well with the goals of the course. Our final course text, The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and Present (Brügger and Schroeder 2017), was essential for modeling the way scholars make meaning from born-digital archives. Ian Milligan’s chapter, “Welcome to the web: The online community of Geocities during the early years of the World Wide Web,” contextualizes Geocities in its time and provides examples of computational approaches to web archives (Brügger and Schroeder 2017).

The learning objectives for the course, listed below, drew from overlapping frameworks.

  • Students will learn and be able to apply the principles of archival theory and practice.
  • Students will think critically about the use and creation of digital records in their own lives and communities.
  • Students will analyze “born digital” archives through the lens of their chosen discipline(s).
  • Students will practice methods for collecting and preserving born-digital archives by conducting their own digital preservation project.

These objectives gesture toward the established digital humanities learning outcomes from A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities[5] (Burdick et al. 2012), adopted by our curricular initiative. These outcomes emphasize the ability to assess information technologies and practice design thinking. The Association of College and Research Libraries’ Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education served as this course’s backbone (Association of College and Research Libraries 2015).[6] Students were asked to think critically about information in every assignment. From writing an annotated bibliography to creating metadata for their web archive, students moved from savvy information consumers to thoughtful information producers. The lab exercises drew from Bryn Mawr’s Digital Competencies initiative and framework. Students developed “digital survival skills” like file structure navigation, troubleshooting, and digital writing and publishing skills like HTML and CSS (Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

Structure and Assignments

This course[7] took place during a twelve-week term in the winter of 2018. We met for ninety minutes twice a week and divided the week into discussion and lab days. Thematically, the course began with three weeks of introductions to the major concepts of the course: the idea of the “digital native,” collective memory, record keeping, and archives as institutions. The first assignment was a personal essay on these concepts and provided an initial indication of students’ comprehension and writing ability. Starting with this framing gave students an opportunity to share personal information and ultimately created a strong sense of community within the class.

In week four, we transitioned out of the personal sphere with a visit to the university library’s Special Collections and Archives department. After an introduction to the unit and its operations, students formed small groups and selected from a small pool of manuscript collections. For the second assignment, students unpacked each collection to learn about its creator, context, and provenance. The hands-on experience with archival sources readied them to consider individual archival principles like original order and respect des fonds (the idea that archival records should be grouped by creator). We even discussed the role and resources of the Special Collections and Archives department within our institutional context.

After week seven, we devoted each week to discussing one aspect of the records management lifecycle—appraisal, acquisition, arrangement and description, access, and outreach. Students worked toward their final project through a series of assignments: an annotated bibliography of existing born-digital collections and scholarly articles on a potential topic, a proposal for their born-digital collection, a process log, a short presentation, and a final reflection. Their final project was conducted through an educational partnership with Archive-It, a web archiving service. For a fee, we received 15GB of space in an Archive-It account and a live training session from an Archive-It staff member. Students selected ten websites on a topic of their choosing, from NFL protests to cryptocurrency.[8] They crawled each of their URLs to create a snapshot that would be preserved by the Internet Archive. The process log was the primary graded product to ensure that platform difficulties did not unevenly affect students.

Labs and Technical Skills

Throughout the course, we held a series of lab days to learn the technical skills necessary for the web archiving project. Lab days were relaxed and instructions were available on the course website so students could work at their own pace. Grouping students by operating system helped with peer-to-peer problem solving when technical errors occurred. On the first day, we built simple websites with HTML and CSS—essential languages for troubleshooting captured websites in Archive-It. Another lab session focused on the command line, using existing tutorials like “The Command Line Crash Course (Shaw n.d.).[9] This skill came in useful when a guest speaker led a workshop on Twarc, a command line tool for capturing social media data (specifically Twitter), created by Documenting the Now.[10] One of the most engaging lab days was spent making glitch art to complement our discussion of file fixity in digital objects. We modified images and audio by opening the files in a text editor and scrambling the content to demonstrate the fragility of digital files.

All of the labs contributed to improving computer and web literacies. Despite their reputation as digital natives, most of the first-year students did not know much about how the web worked. Working with HTML or the command line was an exciting look behind the curtain. Not only did the labs improve specific skills, they helped students become comfortable learning and troubleshooting digital tools.

Results

Students successfully achieved the goals of this course. The primary challenge from the instructor’s point of view was translating professional concepts to a first-year audience. The projects and lab activities were essential in bringing archival principles to life. The opportunity to work with manuscript collections was a highlight for many students and let them experience the realities of archival work. By using the Archive-It platform, students created something that would live beyond them and the bounds of the course. Working with their own topic was both exciting and challenging. It created a strong level of investment, but required explicit training in generating an appropriate research agenda.

Overall, most students easily met the first two learning objectives of learning archival principles and thinking critically about their own digital footprint. Student performance was uneven regarding the more analytical objectives, such as analyzing existing born-digital archives and creating their own collection. Project-based assignments were new to these first-year students, as was the emphasis on process over product. Student evaluations were positive, with most citing the value of learning about an underrepresented field and gaining a new perspective. However, from the instructor perspective, the best method of assessment would be to track the information literacy practices of the students throughout their college career. As the digital humanities curriculum initiative transitions into a digital culture and information minor, hopefully this type of assessment will be possible.

Conclusion

A course centered on archival research, whatever form it may take, is an ideal vehicle for teaching a range of scholarly practices and content areas. It is important for current students to be able to assess and understand the digital content they consume and produce every day. A course on born-digital archives opens the possibilities beyond specific manuscript collections or institutional records to anything on the web. Students held a range of opinions on the trustworthiness of the government and private institutions as preservers of the cultural record, but they all recognized the value in taking ownership of your data and preventing gaps and biases in collections. Their reflections consistently mentioned the importance of community-created and -controlled archives. Hopefully this case study inspires other instructors to make use of born-digital archives in their teaching.

Notes

[1] “The Signal,” the Library of Congress’s blog on digital stewardship, cites a Washington Post article (Ashenfelder 2011) as the source for this statistic, but their embedded link results in a 404 for an individual’s blog. Tracking down the Washington Post article in a subscription-based newspaper database indicates that the quote was attributed to Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, though no context or evidence is given.

[2] More information is available at https://digitalhumanities.wlu.edu/.

[3] Archive-It is a subscription-based web archiving service offered by the Internet Archive. The university library sponsored an “Educational Partnership” account for this course. Archive-It works with a variety of partners, including K-12 schools. They can be found at http://archive-it.org/.

[4] Available at http://site.craftingdigitalhistory.ca/.

[5] Available at http://jeffreyschnapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/D_H_ShortGuide.pdf.

[6] Available at http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

[7] The course website is hosted on the GitBook platform and synced with the instructor’s GitHub account: https://mackenziekbrooks.gitbooks.io/dh-180-born-digital/content/.

[8] The final projects can be accessed here: https://archive-it.org/organizations/1374.

[9] Available at https://learnpythonthehardway.org/book/appendixa.html.

[10] Documenting the Now is a collaborative effort to build community and tools around social media preservation. It can be accessed at https://www.docnow.io/.

Bibliography

Ashenfelder, Mike. 2011. “The Average Lifespan of a Webpage” The Signal. November 8, 2011. http://blogs.loc.gov/thesignal/2011/11/the-average-lifespan-of-a-webpage/.

Association of College and Research Libraries. 2015. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” February 9, 2015. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

Brügger, Niels, and Ralph Schroeder, eds. 2017. The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and the Present. London: UCL Press. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1542998/1/The-Web-as-History.pdf.

Bryn Mawr College. n.d. “Digital Competencies” Accessed June 29, 2018. https://www.brynmawr.edu/digitalcompetencies.

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, eds. 2012. Digital Humanities. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

LaFrance, Adrienne. 2015. “Raiders of the Lost Web.” The Atlantic, October 14, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/raiders-of-the-lost-web/409210/.

Lepore, Jill. 2015. “What the Web Said Yesterday.” The New Yorker, January 19, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/26/cobweb.

Notopoulos, Katie. 2017. “Photobucket Is Holding People’s Photos For ‘Ransom.’” BuzzFeed. July 7, 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/katienotopoulos/photobucket-just-killed-a-chunk-of-internet-history.

Owens, Trevor. 2017. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. https://osf.io/preprints/lissa/5cpjt.

Rumsey, Abby Smith. 2016. When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Shaw, Zed A. n.d. “Appendix A: Command Line Crash Course.” Learn Python the Hard Way. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://learnpythonthehardway.org/book/appendixa.html.

About the Author

Mackenzie Brooks is Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Librarian at Washington and Lee University. There, she teaches in the Digital Culture and Information minor and coordinates Digital Humanities initiatives. Her research focuses on digital pedagogy, scholarly text encoding, and metadata.

2

Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment

Abstract

In this essay, I discuss my methodology in choosing course content for a “Digital Caribbean” course at the CUNY Graduate Center and some of the challenges, expected and unexpected, that I encountered with my approach. In particular, I focus on some of the ethical and methodological questions I grappled with in melding the study of digital technologies with interdisciplinary study of the Caribbean. Formally a narrative assessment of the ways “not to” build a graduate humanities course that engages digital content, this essay primarily explores what it means to work publicly, in a digital format, with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia.

You have to be sure about a position in order to teach a class, but you have to be open-ended enough to know that you are going to change your mind by the time you teach it next week.
— Stuart Hall

In the spring of 2014, I taught a course entitled “The Digital Caribbean” at the CUNY Graduate Center. The course was run by the M.A. in Liberal Studies program (MALS) and cross-listed for the PhD certificates in American Studies and Africana Studies. As far as I could tell in doing my research for the course, it was the first of its kind to be taught at either the graduate or undergraduate level. As such, I found myself cobbling together materials for the course with no precedents or guidelines. This was somewhat easier when I taught the course a year later in the doctoral program in English (again at the CUNY Graduate Center) and then again in Spring 2017 as an undergraduate course at Williams College. In the patchwork essay that follows, I focus on that initial creation for the MALS course, discussing my methodology in choosing content and some of the challenges, expected and unexpected, that I encountered with my approach. In particular, I focus on some of the ethical and methodological questions I grappled with in melding the study of digital technologies with interdisciplinary study of the Caribbean. In part, this is a narrative assessment of the ways “not to” build a graduate humanities course that engages digital content. Mostly, however, it is an exploration of what it means to work publicly with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia, particularly with students who have set ideas about their own personal and intellectual relationships to digital technology and to the region.

There were several considerations in both setting up and running the course. Some were foreseeable at the outset, but others part of the learning process of working with living, variable (and often ephemeral) material. In building the initial version of the course, I worked from what at the time was the fifth chapter of a book in progress on Caribbean cosmology. That project has since changed, primarily I believe because of my experience creating and teaching the course. There was a symbiotic relationship such that what was once merely a chapter became pretty much the book. Nevertheless, the former project did shape my approach to the course in that the idea of cosmology (in the most general, universal, sense of the word) helped me to draw together material I was already comfortable teaching – on Caribbean literature and culture – with the Digital Humanities material that was either entirely new to me or new to me in a classroom setting.

Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning the Digital Caribbean

During the course proposal stage, I was not entirely sure what direction the syllabus would take, so, as many of us do at this stage, I left the course description relatively open. The following course description was part of that proposal and appears in slightly abbreviated form on the course website:

Text of course description for Digital Caribbean course

Figure One: Course Description for Digital Caribbean

Much like a presentation abstract months before a conference, the course description above sounded great ahead of time, but in reality I had no template ready for the course. I had not previously appreciated how much I rely on a literary tradition in my pedagogy. In teaching courses like “Caribbean Literature,” “Literary Theory,” and “Women Writers,” I had always had sample syllabi available to me either via the internet or departmental archives. I had also taken similar courses myself as a graduate student. With the digital component, I was charting new ground in Caribbean Studies; and I was teaching in an interdisciplinary program. Thankfully, there was a relatively established body of work on the intersection of race and digital culture by scholars such as Anna Everett and Lisa Nakamura, as well as a newer but also visible and growing body of work on global digital cultures by scholars such as Jennifer Brinkerhoff and Karim H. Karim. However, work that directly addressed digital technology and the Caribbean was much more difficult to find in 2013. Prior to teaching the class, I knew only of very few sources, most notably, Curwen Best’s 2008 monograph, The Politics of Caribbean Cyberculture, articles in the 2011 sx salon discussion “Caribbean Culture Online,” and Annie Paul’s essay in the 2011 Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature, “Log On: Toward Social and Digital Islands.”

Though few and limited to the Anglophone Caribbean, these texts spanned the disciplinary spectrum and so formed a good base from which to begin. My approach to interdisciplinarity has always been to begin with my strength – literature and close reading – and branch out from there. I was also guided by the description of the “second wave” of digital humanities posited in the “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0”:

The first wave of digital humanities work was quantitative, mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays. The second wave is qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, generative in character. It harnesses digital toolkits in the service of the Humanities’ core methodological strengths: attention to complexity, medium specificity, historical context, analytical depth, critique and interpretation.[1]

Though I am sure there are scholars who would argue with the portrayal of the “first wave,” the rest of the description resonated with me because it spoke so directly to what I wished to achieve in the classroom and in whatever scholarship I produced on the topic. This class, this project, was to be generative in nature, for my students, my colleagues, my field, and myself.

But how to pull these varied texts together in a coherent way for these varied audiences? I began with a provisional syllabus that covered only the first three weeks. This decision was motivated by two realities: 1) I simply was not sure what to put in the following weeks as I was still hoping to seamlessly meld Caribbean studies and digital humanities, 2) I wanted to be transparent with my students about the experimental nature of the course and the need for their active participation in generating course content. For various reasons – professional and personal – I was hesitant about this as a pedagogical strategy, but later in the semester some of the students expressed appreciation for this contingent beginning. My openness about the course as an experiment allowed them to feel part of the creation of the course. Throughout the semester the students were comfortable enough to suggest sites, though not readings, for us to analyze. It also helped that I left space in the syllabus for them to do so and designed some of the assignments to require that they find their own examples to illustrate connections between the readings.

At the time, I was unaware of the wealth of research, case studies, and practical advice regarding co-creating course syllabi with students already amassed by scholars steeped in learner-centered pedagogy. The experimental nature of the Digital Caribbean course was not entirely student-centered, but the openness of the syllabus did allow for a foregrounding of some of the students’ interests throughout the semester. In particular, in response to our first class discussion about topics, I scheduled weeks for us to focus on Caribbean tourism online and queer sexualities in Caribbean digital representation(s), topics I had not previously planned to cover. For these especially, but generally throughout the semester, I became a “co-learner” with my students as the course progressed. Much of what I learned from students in this first iteration of the course shaped the next two versions, which were not quite so experimental in syllabus creation.[2]

Our first day was organized around the traditional discussion of the syllabus, texts, and what students hoped to get out of the class; however, I left the second half of class for setting up the course website. We used the CUNY Academic Commons, which is a robust network that offers members not only WordPress-based websites, but also backend privacy for file-sharing and discussion; this helped to avoid the question of copyright with the readings for the course and gave students a space to communicate as a group.[3] We had a lively discussion about what the URL should be for the site as we tried to take into account our current needs, the potential needs of future scholars, and the ways the site might be accessed and for what reasons. The discussion extended to a consideration of what dependencies we had on such tools as search engines, link condensers, and social media. In the end, we decided that though it may be long (so much so that the Commons site creation tool warned us that we would be better off with something shorter), we would choose digitalcaribbean.commons.gc.cuny.edu. It was easy to remember and had a distinct clarity of purpose – two qualities important for both current and potential future users.[4]

Platforms and Privacy: The CUNY Academic Commons

The decision that seemed in those early days to be the easiest – that of which platform to use – became in time one of the most troubling. The CUNY Commons has been a model for several organizations’ digital platforms in the near-decade since launching in 2009. Though there are always improvements to be made, the platform is well-developed and the community is welcoming and supportive. I had no doubts about it being the proper home for our course site. However, as the semester wore on, many of the assumptions that led to my choice of this platform – some of them about the very topic we were studying – proved to be short-sighted.

First, there was my assumption about students’ (and by extension other professors’) usage of the CUNY Academic Commons. During that first class I realized that several of the students had not yet set up their Commons accounts, even though this was the Spring semester and so all but one of them had been enrolled at the Graduate Center for at least one semester of classes. This highlighted the assumption I had made about my students’ technological savvy. It would become more clear throughout the rest of the semester that I would need to set aside time for a “practicum” at the end of some classes to cover some of the technical details of using the WordPress-based Commons to complete assignments. Of the eight students, about half had never blogged, even more had never blogged using WordPress, and the CUNY Academic Commons was new to the majority.[5]

As scholars we are inundated with information (and in some cases exhortations) about digital pedagogy and digital scholarship. Regardless of our field and topic, our research is increasingly done via screens rather than via printed material. According to David M. Berry in Understanding Digital Humanities,

Across the university the way in which we pursue research is changing, and digital technology is playing a significant part in that change. Indeed, it is becoming more and more evident that research is increasingly being mediated through digital technology. Many argue that this mediation is slowly beginning to change what it means to undertake research, affecting both the epistemologies and ontologies that underlie a research programme […] it is rare to find an academic today who has had no access to digital technology as part of their research activity.[6]

As such, we can easily make assumptions about not only about our colleagues’ usage of digital technology, but also the digital readiness of our students; we know they use computers to write for us and we observe them (sometimes during class) utilizing their ever-smarter phones. Additionally, advertising and mass media in general would have us believe that everyone is accessing the internet to conduct business and pleasure. But in truth, access does not mean use, and use does not mean full engagement.

This question of engagement, my first hurdle beyond creating a syllabus, was a peculiar reflection of what we were to study in the class. Six of my eight students were of Caribbean descent and the ways in which they used the internet to enhance their understandings of Caribbean culture was repeatedly a topic of discussion across the semester. More relevant for my purposes here, however, is the way in which they did not use the internet. The students’ lack of engagement with the CUNY Academic Commons spoke to their concerns about privacy and the distinction they imagined (or ignored) between their professional and personal digital lives.

Because the field of Caribbean digital studies could, at best, be termed small, one of my objectives was to build a resource for future teachers, students and scholars of similar material, a group that was at that time, and still is, noticeably increasing in number and visibility. This envisioned resource included, in large part, my students’ blogging activity, depending on these posts to convey some of the content of our discussion and the nature of possible connections between the materials. I had once before, as an extra credit exercise, assigned public blogging as part of a course, but that was with undergraduates, and optional. For this course I had, without proper forethought, made public blogging a requirement for students who were more invested in academia than my undergraduates and still had further to go on the track (I had one PhD student and the others were Master’s students, most of whom were planning to apply to doctoral programs). One student was vocally hesitant about blogging publicly, especially since our use of the CUNY Academic Commons meant he could not write pseudonymously.[7] I encouraged him to continue to participate, but I offered the option to delete the blogs after the course, which made him much more comfortable. In later discussions with colleagues I found that many offered the opportunity to blog privately. I could have offered this option, but I wanted the “pressure” of public writing to shape the students’ responses. I also, selfishly, wanted to build the site with curated content.

Despite this choice to stick with my original plan, I was torn about the decision as the unevenness of my students’ writing and abilities became more apparent. Public writing is its own genre and the students approached it in different ways; some with previous blogging experience took to the writing requirement easily, as did others comfortable with writing and/or public performance. The distance between these students and those more hesitant about blogging grew as the course went on. Included in my original course description was the objective to “consider the pedagogical and professional aspects of working with not only digital texts, but specifically those produced to represent a minority culture, particularly given the increasing digitization of academic work.” Somehow, I had not envisioned the work produced in the class itself to be part of this objective, but learned quickly that I needed to treat my students’ work as part of these “digital texts” as well. As Trevor Owens writes of his course site in “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends,” my students’ blogging “was not simply a supplement to the course; rather, it played a cognitive role in the distributed structure of the class, moving it from knowledge consumption to knowledge production.”[8] Their blog posts were producing knowledge not just for our little community in the course, but for a larger (albeit still largely imagined) community beyond the classroom.

On the first day of class we had been optimistic enough to choose a hashtag for sharing our course materials on social media but my concerns about my students’ right to relative privacy kept me from directly linking to their work until the final projects at the end of the semester. The question that repeatedly haunted me was: to what extent are we responsible for shielding our students in this manner? It seems a bit silly to think of myself as “shielding” my students when their work was available on the World Wide Web, but given the relative obscurity of some (even most) web content, it is easy to forget about the public nature of material created for a small group. Could I strike some balance between public encouragement of their work and the traditional private safe space of the classroom? A related concern was that all my students were students of color and I did not know which approach to public writing would most benefit them in an academic system and space ill-designed for their success.  As a compromise, I began to suggest revisions in my reading of their blogs. Though I occasionally commented on their blogs publicly, I also periodically “graded” the blogs privately with comments about each. This resulted in more work but sat well with me ethically as it gave my students the option of going back to revise the blog posts both before and after the “grading.”[9] In retrospect, this was the best approach possible given the varied rationales for the course site: a conversation between the course participants, a contemporary resource for interested readers, and an archive for potential future scholars.

Sooner than expected, I had cause to question the ways in which the course was framed on the site for this latter audience. That summer, after the course had closed, I was contacted by Elena Machado Sáez, who was doing research on Robert Antoni’s As Flies to Whatless Boys. Her project was on reader responses to the text and its accompanying website and in doing research she encountered my students’ posts on the Digital Caribbean site. Antoni was one of our class visitors and so there had been significant activity on the blog surrounding his novel and its experimental website. Because many reviewers were ignoring the website (possibly due to how unusual and “out there” it is), my students’ online conversation represented the largest resource of rigorous engagement with both the novel and its website that a scholar could access at the time. Machado Sáez contacted me about the posts and the site in general. Her email and her subsequent usage of material from the site brought me up short and made me realize the ways in which I had not been careful enough in my creation of the site and contextualization of the course.

The irony here is that our last class was on how search engine optimization (SEO) – via Google in particular – affects one’s exposure to information. Therefore, I should have been more cognizant of how the site appeared to an outsider. But I was, again, operating under myopic assumptions about internet usage. Unfortunately, I did not fully realize this until my students’ work had already made it into Machado Sáez’s book. Her reference to the students’ writings begin: “The digital marginalia accessible via CUNY Academic Commons and produced within a classroom setting indicates the discomfort of readerships with the (im)possible intimacy of Antoni’s online archive, as well as its appeal.”[10] This was footnoted with reference to our email exchange:

Kelly Josephs taught a Spring 2014 graduate course at the CUNY Graduate Center on the “Digital Caribbean,” which produced the blog postings on CUNY Academic Commons (“Introduction”). Since I accessed the blog commentary via Google and the classroom context was not directly acknowledged by the posts, I contacted Josephs via e-mail on June 2, 2014, to see if she knew who had generated the posts. Josephs was kind enough to provide me with her course syllabus and a description of the blog post assignment, but she was unaware that the posts could be disconnected from the course content, or rather, read without accessing the relevant online course description and materials. As she noted, “The CUNY Academic Commons is a large conglomerate and this is just one site within it” (“Re: CUNY Academic Commons,” 2 June 2014). Our academic exchange speaks to how classwork may circulate digitally in ways that we as teachers might not imagine, namely, decontextualized from the pedagogical frame that produced that work.[11]

I quote the note in full here because it speaks to the various ethical, archival, and pedagogical dilemmas I highlight above. Machado Sáez raises a salient point about the circulation of digital material. My disconcertion here is not that the student posts were accessed without context, but that the content of the course could then be “decontextualized from the pedagogical frame that produced that work.” This was in part due to my neglecting to properly “brand” the course and its proliferating content, relying too much on the assumption that readers would navigate their way to the syllabus and the course description. Indeed, we had the public in mind when creating the site – that was in large part the point of our first class discussion about what to name the site and how to frame it – however, the prominence of the “CUNY” branding vis-à-vis the name of the site itself had not been part of that initial discussion (nor had it occurred to me during the course). The potential divorcing of student work from the entirety of the course experience raises for me the following questions:

  • What assumptions do we make about the holistic nature of a course when building a public site to house student work? Do these assumptions really matter to future “use” of the work?
  • What does it do to add the public as an audience for coursework? How does that reflect on content choices? How does this additional component shape assignments and “performance” in the course?
  • How does the choice of platform affect reception of the work? If we rely on platforms provided by our academic institutions, how does the institution continue to own our intellectual labor in ways we did not envision – or ways we do not mean to occur?

Three iterations of the course later, I am still grappling with these questions.[12] Before teaching the course again in 2015, I made small revisions to the course site in an effort to more clearly signal the course context for public readers, but kept the general structure and all the previous student work as part of the archive. For the 2017 undergraduate course I decided to build a new site with a different theme and organization, partly to speak to the distinct needs of my undergraduate students but also in an effort at embracing the ephemerality of a site hosted by an institution within which I was contingent faculty.[13] Rather than answering the questions above, teaching the course again has simply nuanced them, foregrounding for me the ethics of scholarship vs pedagogy, particularly when the Caribbean as subject matter and identity politics in the classroom – engaging underrepresented peoples and places – underlie these questions of ethics and public distribution.

We learn as we teach. As I teach this course, I am learning to err on the side of impermanence whenever my drive to build a site as part of the “product” of the course seems to be in tension with the needs of my students to learn in a private, safe space. I am learning to incorporate space and time for opacity in such ventures; space and time for students to create, and revise, and perhaps even refuse work in ways ultimately invisible behind the screens of outsiders. Impermanence and opacity – these are not easy choices for a Caribbeanist in the age of livestreamed conferences, recorded lectures, and hashtagged events. In the digital age, we want access to everything, archives of everything. As a Caribbean scholar, I also desire to build evidence of the complexities, the very existence, of our cultures; evidence against, as Derek Walcott phrases it: “the way that the Caribbean is still looked at, illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized. ‘No people there,’ to quote Froude, ‘in the true sense of the word.’ No people. Fragments and echoes of real people, unoriginal and broken.”[14] The lure of digital archives is their potential to make such evidence of history, of humanity, accessible in all senses of the word. I am learning to weigh this drive toward visibility against my students’ needs for invisibility, reminding myself each time that impermanence and opacity, difficult as they may be for a digital humanist, are longstanding strategies of resistance in Caribbean cultures.

Notes

[1] Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, and Peter Lunenfeld, “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” http://www.humanitiesblast.com/manifesto/Manifesto_V2.pdf. Emphasis in original. This citation is limited as according to Presner, “Parts of the manifesto were written by Jeffrey Schnapp, Peter Lunenfeld, and myself, while other parts were written (and critiqued) by commenters on the Commentpress blog and still other parts of the manifesto were written by authors who participated in the seminars. This document has the hand and words of about 100 people in it.” (Todd Presner, “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 Launched” 22 June 2009, http://www.toddpresner.com/?p=7, accessed 15 November 2017). Thus, while I note all three authors in the bibliographic record, I wish to also acknowledge that, in keeping with the gestalt of DH work, it is a collaborative document.

[2] For an illustrative discussion of the hows and whys of co-creating syllabi and course assignments with students, see Cathy Davidson’s 2015 HASTAC series “How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom,” https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2015/08/04/how-do-i-get-started-step-step-guide-designing-student-centered

[3] The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy is also part of the CUNY Academic Commons, though the site does not have a Commons URL or the Commons header.

[4] I was already using the simpler URL caribbean.commons.gc.cuny.edu for another site. It pays to be an early adopter in this field.

[5] The Commons team has since focused some of their resources on orienting new CUNY Graduate Center students to the platform and so both knowledge and usage of the Commons has increased in the past four years.

[6] David M. Berry, ed. Understanding Digital Humanities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 1.

[7] I learned afterward that this is a possibility with the CUNY Academic Commons and have since offered the option to students, though none have yet chosen to blog under a pseudonym. In an unexpected turn of events, the student most hesitant about public blogging in this first version of the course later included his posts as part of his online resume of writings.

[8] Trevor Owens, “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/6

[9] The course site remains public and as of this writing – as far as I could tell from the dashboard – none of the students have erased their blogs. This may, of course, speak more to their forgetting to remove them than any considered decision about their academic portfolio.

[10] Elena Machado Sáez, Market Aesthetics: The Purchase of the Past in Caribbean Diasporic Fiction (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 207.

[11] Ibid, 228.

[12] The initial course ended with student digital projects (though I gave the option of a traditional paper, six of the eight students chose to build digital projects). The projects were extremely gratifying for me and I felt much more comfortable sharing these projects via social media because the students had “owned” them in a way they had not “owned” the blog posts for the course. What I found most interesting was that each of these projects was built “elsewhere.” That is, none of the students chose the CUNY Academic Commons to house their work. Perhaps they were much more aware of these questions of ownership and reception than I was at the time.

[13] This course was part of my teaching responsibilities as a visiting professor at Williams College. As of this writing, the site is still accessible, but my access to the administration of it will expire when my Williams College email account expires.

[14] Derek Walcott, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1992. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/walcott-lecture.html

About the Author

Kelly Baker Josephs is Associate Professor of English at York College, CUNY. She is the author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Insanity in Anglophone Caribbean Lit­erature (2013), editor of sx salon: a small axe literary platform, and manager of The Caribbean Commons website. Her current project, “Caribbean Articulations: Storytelling in a Digital Age,” explores the intersections between new technologies and Caribbean cultural production.

Single folio from Codex Zouche-Nuttall showing Lord 8 Deer Jaguar Claw
4

Doing Digital Art History in a Pre-Columbian Art Survey Class: Creating an Omeka Exhibition Around the Mixtec Codex Zouche-Nuttall

Abstract

This article describes the development of an Omeka student project in a Pre-Columbian art history survey class that also acquaints students with digital art history (DAH). The course incorporates daily activities intended to help students create a collaborative Omeka exhibition focused on the Mixtec Codex Zouche-Nuttall (CZN). These activities, which include annotating images, creating metadata for images, discussions of image copyrights and fair use, sourcing images, and assessing online resources, introduce some of the important tools, skills, and methodologies of DAH to students largely unfamiliar with the digital humanities. They also prepare students to create an Omeka exhibition framed around the CZN and comparative images. Both the classroom activities and Omeka project help students to think about digital visual culture, non-linear storytelling, and public art history as well as the opportunities afforded by DAH to shape new narratives about the history of art in the ancient Americas.

Many in the humanities—whether they consider themselves digital humanists or not—employ digital technology to engage students within and outside the classroom. One of my colleagues in the English Program at Pepperdine University, where I teach, asks students to create a blog to share reading responses, but considers herself “tech-averse.” She simply uses the blogging platform because she feels it appeals to students who are more familiar with digital environments. Another English colleague asks students to use WordSmith (a textual analysis program that examines word patterns and frequency) to analyze primary source documents located in our Special Collections as part of a process of producing a website on George Pepperdine’s writings; she considers her pedagogical approach as one that bridges machine learning with humanistic inquiry. These two approaches represent a general spectrum of digitally mindful pedagogy, from the digitally inflected to the digitally centered; in this essay, I am more interested in the latter. A vast literature exists on how such digitally centered pedagogy can benefit (or not) students in English, History, Classics, Philosophy, and Information Literacy/Library Studies (or some combination thereof) by helping them to ask discipline-specific questions using digital tools. For instance, Chris Johanson and Elaine Sullivan (2015) have discussed creating a class focused on digital cultural mapping as a way to “develop students’ critical thinking skills and visual sophistication” (123). T. Mills Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age (2013) considers how digital tools and methods encourage students to “produce either new knowledge about the past, or old knowledge presented in new ways.” Kelly also offers guidance and narratives intended to promote reflection on how historians can use digital media in the classroom to “create active learning opportunities.” In other words, he makes suggestions about how historians can embrace digitally inflected technologies to create new methods of historical inquiry (“Introduction”; see also Iantorno 2014, and the various essays within the issue; Mourer 2017; Silva 2016).

Discussions of digitally inflected or digitally centered art history pedagogy are more recent, as are attempts to define digital art history (DAH) and its unique practices.[1] However, a steadily growing literature attests to the interest in such pedagogical strategies, such as the use of data visualization to explore artists’ relationships to one another to reveal gender bias within the field (Ross 2013). What is DAH pedagogy? This question is at the heart of recent discussions, among them an insightful Smarthistory.org blog entry by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker (founders of Smarthistory) titled “Where is the pedagogy in digital art history?” (2017).[2] Noting that articles focused on DAH pedagogy are often valued less than those focused on research (e.g., Fletcher 2015), they argue that DAH can be used in the classroom and beyond “to ask new questions, model new collaborative working methods, embrace new methodologies, and gain new skills.”[3] Among their recommendations: inform students about the importance of speaking to a broad, public audience; teach them about copyrights, licensing, and fair use; collaborate; and open up the classroom and teaching strategies. In a similar vein, Art Historians Interested in Pedagogy and Technology organized a panel at the 2016 College Art Association meeting that addressed how new technologies have potentially transformed the art history classroom, moving beyond the now deeply ingrained digitized slide lecture. At a time when the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) has become a topic of greater interest among art historians, in part due to the rapid changes in technology that have impacted learning as well as the looming threats to the humanities at large, considerations of pedagogy and DAH seem apt and timely (e.g., Spivey and McGarry 2016).[4]

What these discussions reveal is that DAH pedagogy builds on the broader applications and investigations of DH pedagogy yet differs in several key ways. For instance, DAH pedagogy stresses how visual culture (or “art”) is uniquely suited to ask different types of questions from written texts, revealed in processes like how we create data about imagery that cannot be tagged or annotated using the same methods or tools as that produced for alphabetic texts. Art historians (and our students) are also positioned to think critically about digital visuality and analyze how digital visual environments encode ideas. Discussions about “visuality and the digital,” or simply digital visuality, form an important cornerstone within these considerations about DAH pedagogy. The Nordic Network for Digital Visuality defines digital visuality as “the production and consumption of digitally mediated expressions of selfhood and society through visual and audio-visual interfaces (images, photos, video, TV, etc.).” With all these discussions in mind, how then can we explore digital visuality with students in the art history survey classroom?

This essay describes the development of a joint DAH and Pre-Columbian art survey class that will run in Fall 2017.[5] Specifically, through the semester-long activities and Omeka course project students complete to explore digital visuality, I discuss how DAH can transform the practice of traditional art history and the production of knowledge in this digital age. At Pepperdine, a new digital humanities minor was approved for Fall 2017. One of the first classes to be offered as an elective is my Pre-Columbian art history class, an ambitious survey that explores some of the cultures of what is today Latin America prior to the arrival of Europeans [for an overview, see Appendix A]. Most students enter with little to no background in the subject matter, so it functions as a general survey course. I have taught this class for many years (not at Pepperdine), but never as one that also introduces students specifically to DAH. Knowing that it fulfills the digital humanities minor elective means I have had the opportunity to reconceptualize the class to both introduce some DAH methods and tools and focus on pre-Columbian art and history. What does DAH look like in the survey classroom? More specifically, how do I introduce the methodologies and tools of DAH to undergraduates of all levels in an art history survey class, or even what do I choose to introduce within a single semester? How do I reconfigure a class I typically teach in a slide-style lecture format to incorporate DAH as I have done with some of my other art history classes?

In my Renaissance and Spanish Colonial art history classes, I have found that an effective way of introducing students to some core DAH methods and tools is asking them to produce an Omeka exhibition. The creation of this type of project relates to broader issues in art history and digital humanities, including classifications or labels, digital versus print sources, reading and interpreting images, access, collaboration, and visuality.[6] It also introduces students to “digitization, organization, presentation, exhibition, [and] metadata creation,” as Jeffrey McClurken (2010) notes in his article on teaching with Omeka. Omeka is a content management system (CMS) available on the web that allows users to curate digital archives and exhibitions, providing students with opportunities to think like a curator or archivist. I prefer Omeka to other CMSs, such as Drupal, because it allows my class to create both an archive of items and a narrative exhibition even if students have no programming skills. In addition, I agree with teachinghistory.org regarding Omeka’s potential to help students gain certain skills transferable to many careers (Roy Rosenzweig Center 2010–2018). In some of the classes in which I have introduced Omeka (or something similar to it), students often felt unease with a DAH project rather than the traditional research paper of approximately 8–10 pages. This unease largely stemmed from their unfamiliarity with using Omeka and presenting art-historical arguments in a non-linear fashion, but it also sometimes resulted from my own missteps: not introducing Omeka early enough in the semester, forming ineffective teams, or not scaffolding activities to help them understand how and why Omeka is an important manner in which to present knowledge.[7]

Learning from these earlier experiences, I decided that in my Pre-Columbian art survey class, students would work in teams to create an Omeka exhibition centered on the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (CZN), a Mixtec (or Ñudzavui) codex dating to ca. 1450 that partly relates to the epic narrative of the hero Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw” (Figure 1). While the specific content of this codex is largely unfamiliar to students, it generally appeals to them because it focuses on genealogical history and an epic hero story—concepts that are familiar in relation to other cultures and eras. Each student will choose one folio from the CZN related to Lord 8 Deer to complete an individual component of the project before choosing a larger theme around which to frame their chosen folios within their teams. Teams will decide on the theme that each member will explore using his or her folio and compare it to a few additional images and objects to expand on the thematic focus. For instance, a team might explore pigments used to color the CZN or how women are depicted. Teams will write a collaborative introduction to their exhibition, but will also write individual pages as part of the exhibition that elaborate on the theme with their chosen folio. The goal of the class is to introduce students to important DAH ideas, skills, and methods such as creating clear metadata, annotating digital images, evaluating digital art history projects, and understanding what content management systems can do. This must be accomplished early in the semester so that they will use this knowledge to construct the Omeka CZN exhibition, creating repeated opportunities “to ask new questions, model new collaborative working methods, embrace new methodologies, and gain new skills,” as Harris and Zucker (2015) urge.

Codex Zouche-Nuttall Open
Figure 1. Codex Zouche-Nuttall (source: Michel Wal, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons).

In earlier iterations of this class, to develop students’ visual literacy skills and historical knowledge, I often assigned students a local museum object from Mesoamerica or the Andes around which they developed a project. The first component of this more traditional project was a formal analysis paper (approximately 2–3 pages) that asked students to study the object in person and analyze its composition, lines, color, texture, and shapes. They then researched a broader topic (such as gender, mythology, or rulership) with this object as their primary focus. Until I became more interested in DAH as a scholar and teacher in 2013, these assignments were the cornerstones of my classroom. Since early 2014, I have continued to transform my pedagogy and course assignments for several of my classes, but have not yet had the opportunity to do so for my Pre-Columbian course. Given my success with creating Omeka exhibitions in other classes—although none that fulfilled any major or minor requirement in DH—I will make this project and the requisite skills and tools needed to construct it a key thread for my new pre-Columbian art course. While I am replacing the traditional formal analysis/research paper model, the Omeka project still asks students to look closely at images and to interpret them asking new types of questions.

In my experience, students are often intrigued but overwhelmed learning about Mesoamerican pictorial codices, including the CZN. The very idea that the codex has no written text, only visual imagery to tell a story, can present a real challenge, as can the non-linear visual storytelling. Apart from the Maya, Mesoamerican peoples did not have fully developed writing systems akin to our own system of writing. However, complex forms of visual writing are found throughout Mesoamerican history. The Mixtec are but one group who produced complex pictographic codices that relayed genealogies and dynastic histories, calendrical information, or ritualistic details.[8] By their very nature, the codices are read differently than a book with written text, and anyone unfamiliar with the visual signs or pictographic symbols will find these codices challenging and possibly impenetrable. This is also true when the manner (or style) in which the imagery appears is unfamiliar to most students. They have to develop new visual literacy skills and become more familiar with Mesoamerican sign systems to decode what they see. Feedback from student evaluations and in-class discussions suggests that students enjoy learning about Mixtec codices because once they know how to read them they recognize how similar they are to more contemporary visual storytelling modes, such as comic books.

DAH—and Omeka in particular—provides a new way of engaging with the CZN that allows my class to broach a variety of topics: collaboration, writing without words in Mesoamerica, storytelling within the codex and in digital formats, metadata and classification, and engaging with a public audience (not just the professor). It also presents an opportunity for students to think in a non-linear fashion about how to present their ideas, arguments, and evidence using a CMS like Omeka, in the process becoming more aware of DAH and digital visuality in general. The non-linear construction of Omeka also mimics, to some degree, the non-linear pictorial writing of the CZN.

Introducing DAH in a Pre-Columbian Art History Survey Class

Before describing the Omeka project in greater detail, I will outline some of the activities students will complete during class time to introduce them to DAH methods and tools—those that they will need to complete their project. Because some students will take other DH classes to fulfill the minor requirement, I want this class to highlight what makes DAH potentially different from DH. I have selected a few methods and tools that build on one another and allow students to learn about pre-Columbian art and DAH simultaneously. They include image analysis and annotation, locating and analyzing online resources, creating metadata, collaboration, understanding fair use and image copyright permissions, and finding ways to engage with a broader audience (“public art history”). All of these tools and methods we will initially explore together in class, either with me introducing them or as a team activity related to the day’s material. The opportunity to use the classroom as a lab for experimentation permits students to gain some level of mastery over the skills and tools they will be expected to use in their final Omeka project.

Collaboration will be stressed from the beginning of the semester. On the first day of class students will be arranged into permanent teams; to hold them accountable to their team, students will provide peer evaluations at the midterm and end of the semester, both of which factor into their final grade.[9] All students at Pepperdine have access to Google Apps, providing an easy way for teams to collaborate and organize their assignments and research. Each team will create a folder in Google Drive that is accessible to all of the team members and me. Any assignment they complete as an individual or team will be located here. To familiarize students with the collaborative writing process, I will also ask them to create a document in their folder labeled “lecture notes” that the team can use simultaneously during lecture to produce one set of cohesive notes to help them review material. For students unfamiliar with this process, it can be disorienting, so we will brainstorm ways to organize the notes or divide the work fairly between team members. I have used crowd-sourced lecture notes in my large lecture humanities class (200+ students) with great success, and I imagine similar success in this smaller class of 20. Also on day one, a collaborative icebreaker activity will act as an entry point to the topic of pre-Columbian art and its significance as a field of study. Each team will complete a poll/scavenger hunt that includes locating a definition and map of Mesoamerica and an image of the Maya calendar, tagging a few images that I provide and listing associations they have with certain terms, including “Aztec,” “Inka,” “Moche,” and “Pre-Columbian.” This activity will allow teams to bond while adjusting to working collaboratively as well as raise important issues about perceptions or misperceptions of pre-Columbian cultures, art, and history.

On the second day of class (or during the first full lecture), each student will receive the same black-and-white photocopied image showing the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice in the early colonial Codex Magliabechiano (fol. 70) (Figure 2). They will be asked to annotate it (with a pen) in any manner they see fit, using information from the previous night’s reading (e.g., Boone 1980, 1–5; Taube 1993, 18–30) about the validity of using early colonial ethno-historical manuscripts and codices to understand pre-Columbian cultures.[10] Having done this exercise in the past, I know that student-generated annotations range from pure formal description (e.g., a heart, a person, a knife) to cultural biases about Aztec sacrifice (e.g., murderous peoples, bloodlust). After students share and describe their annotations, we will discuss what these annotations exclude—in other words, how does the very act of annotating an image potentially skew an individual’s engagement with what is displayed?

Cropped image of Aztec Heart Sacrifice on temple platform from sixteenth-century Codex Magliabechiano 70r
Figure 2. Folio 70r of the Codex Magliabechiano, 16th century. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The same image will then be displayed on the screen using Thinglink, a tool that allows digital annotation (or tagging) of images. My annotated Codex Magliabechiano image will include links to other sources, maps, and videos to demonstrate for students the possibilities afforded by this manner of framing images. Students are asked to compare this manner of annotating images with the paper version they completed. This activity motivates students to look closely as well as think about how annotations affect our reception and interpretation of images on paper or in the digital environment. It also allows us to address the issue of the physical context of the image, cropped and disassociated from the manuscript’s other images and text—in other words, the process of decontextualization that occurs when images are printed in books or placed on the web. This is especially important to consider in the digital environment, and the ways in which we can work to provide better contextualization.

Students are often unprepared or unfamiliar with how to assess digital resources, which is a crucial skill as more students turn to information online. In a following lecture, each team will assess information online about a topic with which they now have some familiarity: Aztec human sacrifice. The sources include webpages like Wikipedia’s entry and Aztec-history.com. Each team will receive a rubric [Appendix B] to use in assessing the resource. The critical reading activity opens a conversation about how we know what we know about Aztec sacrificial rituals—a topic that receives a disproportionate amount of attention in the past and present, not all of it valuable or accurate. Assessing digital resources permits students to think about knowledge and information, digital sources, and digital narratives (visual and textual). It also raises the importance of accountability, especially when publishing material accessible to the general public via a web search. This activity prepares students for the research they will complete about the CZN, and for which they will be asked to draw on print and digital sources.

Introducing students to metadata early in the semester is important because for their Omeka project they will need to input metadata for each item as it relates to the Dublin Core (used by Omeka). Initial conversations with students about metadata often reveal their unfamiliarity with the concept, even if in practice they do know something about it. In a few class periods, we consider metadata specifically: What is it? How is it created? How is it used? Why does it matter?[11] “A Gentle Introduction to Metadata” by Jeff Good (2002) serves as the launching point for our discussion about creating metadata for objects and images versus written texts. Students today are familiar with tagging, especially on social media, which serves as a useful starting point for creating metadata. After our initial discussion, and during a lecture on Aztec art, I will project for students the famous Coyolxauhqui monolith and ask them to create metadata, specifically as it relates to the Dublin Core. They will complete this activity in a team Google Doc so they can see the metadata generated by other students—and how this might differ greatly from their own choices. Time pending, I will also introduce students to the Getty’s Cultural Objects Name Authority® Online, or CONA (still in development), which provides metadata about visual culture specifically. In other classes where I have used Omeka, one of the biggest hurdles for students has been learning the language of Dublin Core. My intention with this assignment is to introduce it before students even begin to interact with Omeka so they develop familiarity with metadata and how to create it.

For the Omeka site, students will also need to locate images that have a Creative Commons license or are not protected by certain copyrights. To prepare them for this need, in a lecture about the Aztecs, students will complete a team scavenger hunt, an activity adapted from the 2014 DAH institute “Rebuilding the Portfolio.”[12] The scavenger hunt includes finding three copyright-free images from the Templo Mayor, finding an object from the Templo Mayor in a U.S. museum, locating a high quality image of an object associated with the Templo Mayor, and sourcing a video about some aspect of the Aztecs that seems accurate. This activity provides a low-stakes opportunity for them to think about where to find images or multimedia content for their Omeka exhibition. It also begins a longer conversation about who owns images and objects, why copyrights exist, and the need to identify how best to use copyrighted materials. Students will be introduced, for instance, to the College Art Association’s “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts.” Students rarely consider fair use or image copyrights, but it is important information for them to have in our digital era.

While none of these activities focuses on the CZN or Omeka specifically, each one introduces students to key aspects of the project from the class’s beginning. Scaffolding these low-stakes activities helps students digest new tools and skills before learning about Omeka and the CZN in more detail. My goal is to help students feel more confident about using Omeka because they will recognize the similarities with earlier activities completed during class. They will also understand that experimenting with a new tool or skill does not always mean mastery of it, and that struggling or even “failing” is an important part of the learning experience.

The Codex Zouche-Nuttall Project

Up to this point, students have not engaged explicitly with the Codex Zouche-Nutall. Over the next several lectures, they will have the opportunity to use DAH methods and tools in relation to Mixtec codices, helping them begin to think about their project in greater detail. Prior to the first class on Mixtec codices, students will receive a folio from the CZN (e.g., Figure 3) that they will narrate in written form and read to the class. Students will certainly have some creative readings because they have no deep familiarity with the CZN. This activity is intended to spark their visual interest in the CZN and to demonstrate the complexity of putting pictographic writing into words. It is a basic activity that embodies the post-structuralist notion of the incommensurability of language and images (or even vision), summed up by the philosopher-historian Michel Foucault (1973, 9): “the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation. It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate. Neither can be reduced to the other’s terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.”

Once students have shared their written narratives, we will discuss how to “read” and understand the complex imagery in the CZN. A main resource is John Pohl’s detailed discussion of the CZN available on FAMSI, or the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Institute. With the folio projected on the screen, students will begin to read day and year signs, place signs, the people displayed, specific gestures, and other visual signs after engaging with some of these resources. I will also provide them with another annotated image on Thinglink for future reference (in addition to a Google Doc that includes useful information). Students will then break into their teams and browse through the CZN to select their individual folios and begin brainstorming the team theme for their Omeka project. They will record their ideas on a Google Doc as well as paste images of their chosen folios into the same document for the team’s easy reference. At this point, they will begin to conduct research on the CZN, and more specifically their chosen theme. A librarian will visit one class to discuss available resources on campus and beyond (e.g., Interlibrary Loan, online resources, databases, local resources like UCLA and the Getty) as well as to discuss information literacy more broadly.

Single folio from Codex Zouche-Nuttall showing Lord 8 Deer Jaguar Claw
Figure 3. Codex Zouche-Nuttall folio. By Anonymous (British Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

An entire day is devoted to a tour and overview of Omeka, with us working through two posts from The Programming Historian (“Up and running with Omeka.net” [Posner 2016] and “Creating an Omeka Exhibit” [Posner and Brett 2016]). After introducing them to Omeka specifically, they will have the opportunity to upload their chosen folio as an item. At this point, students are aware that Omeka uses the Dublin Core metadata element for its records. Earlier class conversations and activities about metadata will help students recognize how Omeka is structured to create an item. Students will be prompted to add their chosen folio from the CZN to Omeka as an item, allowing them to practice inputting metadata using Dublin Core. Omeka also allows for specific Item Type Metadata, adding files (like images), and tags. Adding this one item is the first step on Omeka toward completing their larger team exhibition.

Paired with the earlier exercises, the creation of the Omeka items encourages students to think further about how images and objects are categorized, including the potential challenges and problems that arise in the process of categorization. This issue of categorization is one I often wrestle with in teaching and practicing art history, and one that many of my courses and research address. In my Renaissance art class, for instance, we often return to the question of what falls under the category of “Renaissance” and why. What chronological or geographical boundaries do we use to describe something as “Renaissance art”? Does a sixteenth-century colonial Mexican featherwork modeled on a Flemish print belong to the Renaissance? What stylistic label(s) do we use to describe something as “Renaissance,” and is it even important that we do so? Why is an Italian maniera artist like Bernardo Bitti, who moved to colonial Peru, often excluded from discussions of the reach of the Italian Renaissance outside of those focused on colonial Latin America? Inputting this one folio image from the CZN into Omeka, students are further exposed to the challenges that art historians face, and the subjectivity that arises when ascribing labels to artworks—or anything for that matter. This stage of the project not only helps students to look more closely at one single folio but also presses them to think about the potential impact digital resources can have on our understanding of a single image.

Students will be given the freedom to explore their team theme in any way they see fit, provided they locate comparative images and complete documented research to support their ideas. Once teams have developed a thematic focus for their larger exhibition, each individual student will decide how to analyze their chosen folio with this theme in mind. Students will be asked to find comparative images, objects, or architecture that connects to their folio and theme. For instance, one team might decide to focus on places depicted in the CZN, with each individual team member then focusing on a place depicted in a single folio. One student might realize the images associated with Tilantongo (Ñuu Tnoo) appear similar to architectural frieze remains of Mitla that we discussed. She could decide to include a photograph of the palace of Mitla as an item to Omeka and develop this comparison in her individual exhibition page. Another student in the same team might have an interest in topography of the Oaxaca region of Mexico and find photographs of some of the large, prominent hills (like Black Hill, or Yucu Tnoo) that are sometimes associated with specific places in the CZN. Yet another student might show interest in mapping, deciding to compare the representation of places in a specific folio of the CZN with another Mesoamerican codex that shows the same place or perhaps a different manner of mapping geography. This comparative component asks students to place the imagery and narrative of the CZN in a broader context, thereby making connections to other material discussed in class.

The exhibition is where teams will be able to offer more analytic discussions and ideas about specific items, guiding anyone who visits the site through a curated narrative. Teams will write an introduction (approximately 250–400 words) about their theme in a Google Doc initially before adding it to their exhibition’s first page. In other words, this introduction helps to connect each of their individual items and pages that expand on the items. For their individual pages (approximately 800–1200 words, including notes), the narrative is both textual and visual, pairing their CZN folio with their comparative images as well as the student’s research on and interpretation of the theme. Each student will be asked to link to an annotated Thinglink image of their chosen folio. In addition, similar to the earlier Templo Mayor scavenger hunt, students will need to locate high quality images in the public domain for their comparative images. A specific Google Doc in their team folder will include this information, and any necessary links, to ensure they are working with images that can be publicly posted on their Omeka site.

The ultimate goal is to produce a dynamic exhibition that emphasizes the complexity of the pictorial narrative in the CZN and its relationship to broader visual and material realms in Mesoamerica. Moreover, the final product is intended to demonstrate for students how users can successfully navigate through a non-linear narrative about the CZN—not unlike the process of “reading” the CZN itself. Unlike the traditional research paper, this project encourages students to think about creating an argument both visually and textually in a digital environment. They will have to consider how navigating their narrative online via a screen is different from reading a typed paper, and the different creative and analytic choices that are involved in this form of knowledge production.[13]

The Impact of DAH on the Practice of Art History In and Out of the Classroom

Ideally, each team will create beautiful, well-thought-out, detailed exhibitions. In my experience, however, having students create Omeka exhibitions can be messy, complicated, and frustrating for them. This is because the assignment not only requires them to use a new platform with which they are unfamiliar but also demands that they see the responsibility placed on them: the metadata they create, including tags, affects how people find their images or even understand them. Similarly, the exhibition they create—the images they select, how they interpret them, what they choose to include or exclude, how they discuss their research for a public audience—forms a new narrative similar to other digital resources they are familiar with navigating, but about which they may never have thought about critically.

Yet here is the catch: I see the messy or less cohesive Omeka exhibition as a success, provided students recognize the complexity of digital visuality, information available on the web, and the responsibility they have interpreting the CZN on a public CMS like Omeka. There is inherent value in making mistakes or recognizing where there is need for improvement. If students become anxious that there are errors in information on the website, then we can discuss how we can alter or address them (now or in a future semester). This process also highlights the ongoing nature of historical research, that it is not some finite, clear, linear “thing” that exists in a vacuum—in other words, the process highlights the notion that history is produced, not simply recovered. Furthermore, students learn that the classification systems used by art historians are not objective, and they often find this idea illuminating yet unsettling. It disrupts what they are often taught earlier in their education, but I believe that this process of slow dismantling of preconceived notions is useful, thoughtful, and integral to their development as thinkers. Finally, showcasing student work in a public digital environment demonstrates to the students the responsibility we have as historians to share our research and ideas with people in general, not just other academics.

The Omeka projects I have assigned (and will assign) also provide students with other important skills and ideas, most notably collaborating with peers, being able to communicate with a wide audience, and thinking about how digital images tell stories, all of which are important within any work environment today. As with all collaborative projects, some individuals will find the process frustrating, associating it with the dreaded “group work.” Yet if conflicts arise, they will be coached on how to resolve them in a professional manner, a useful skill on the job market as well. They will also quickly grasp how collaboration allows for a richer, more complex, expansive project that would be impossible to plan and construct as a lone individual—in other words, the potential of crowd-sourcing data and interpretations to revolutionize knowledge production. Even in more traditional art history classes that do not use DAH tools or methodologies, students can use the skills and approaches they have developed to engage with visual culture more deeply. Lastly, students will recognize the power of digital images to construct new narratives and to alter perceptions depending on how this imagery is framed. In the digital world in which we live, students spend a great deal of their time on various social media platforms and encounter digital images in increasingly high numbers. Yet they do not often spend time reflecting on the constructed nature of these digital visual environments. I hope that they will leave the class realizing the significant impact the digital can have on the practice of art history using non-traditional methods and tools, and on the very ways we produce visual and textual knowledge.

Notes

[1] Digital art history, like the broader digital humanities, is challenging to define. Recent attempts by Johanna Drucker (2013), Pamela Fletcher (2015), Murtha Baca and Anne Helmreich (2017), Diana Zorich (2012), and others highlight what a thorny term it is. Fletcher notes that “Defining digital art history and its relationship to the larger fields of digital humanities and art history is . . . a collaborative work in progress.” I prefer to keep the term as broad as possible, so perhaps it is summed up as the use of new media technologies and computational methods to study and practice art history. For more on what DAH is or how we might define it, see Baca and Helmreich’s special issue on DAH for Visual Resources (2013) as well as Drucker, Helmreich, Matthew Lincoln, and Francesca Rose’s essay on DAH and the American scene (2017).

[2] Smarthistory offers a dynamic resource for students, scholars, and the general public to learn about the history of art. I disclose here that I am a board member, content editor, and author for Smarthistory.

[3] Fletcher, for instance, offers an insightful overview of digital art history research methods and practices, but does not discuss the SoTL or pedagogy (2015). There are also clearer methods of evaluating digital scholarship, but little has been published or discussed about methods of evaluating digital art history pedagogy. For the former, see Fisher 2016. For more on pedagogy and the digital humanities more generally, see Brier 2012.

[4] Art History Teaching Resources (AHTR) is an example of greater interest in art history pedagogy resources, with the AHTR weekly journal sometimes addressing specifically digital art history pedagogy concerns. Art History Pedagogy and Practice (AHPP) is affiliated with AHTR.

[5] This essay was written prior to the Fall 2017 semester.

[6] Omeka has three main categories to curate: items, collections, and exhibitions. Items are created and then arranged into collections. Exhibitions are formed around items paired with text and possibly even other visualizations (such as maps).

[7] For a wonderful essay discussing some of the challenges of using Omeka in the classroom, see Allred 2017. For more on students’ possible resistance to new technologies introduced in the classroom, see Keramidas 2012.

[8] For more on the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, see Williams 2013 and the general introduction and tutorial resources on mesolore.org.

[9] This strategy is one related to Team-Based Learning (TBL). See Ball and Kilroy-Ewbank 2014; and Kilroy-Ewbank 2014.

[10] Students will also read short excerpts from several of these ethno-historic sources during class.

[11] For a thoughtful discussion of the importance of introducing students to why metadata matters, see Colburn 2017.

[12] I was a participant of this institute, hosted by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and sponsored by the Getty Foundation.

[13] For more on pedagogy, exhibitions, digital media, and interactive design, see Keramidas and Sharratt 2013.

Bibliography

Allred, Jeffrey. 2017. “A Professor Goes Overboard with Omeka and DH Box.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Teaching Fails, March 13. Accessed May 2, 2017. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/a-professor-goes-overboard-with-omeka-and-dh-box/.

Baca, Murtha, and Anne Helmreich. 2013. “Introduction.” Visual Resources 29, nos. 1–2 (March–June): 1–4.

———. 2017. “Introducing Three Digital Art History Case Studies.” The Getty Iris, February 15. http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/dah_baca_helmreich/.

Ball, Jennifer, and Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank. 2014. “Team-based Learning for Art Historians.” Art History Teaching Resources. Accessed April 17, 2017. http://arthistoryteachingresources.org/2014/04/team-based-learning-for-art-historians/.

Boone, Elizabeth. 1980. “How Efficient Are Early Colonial Manuscripts as Iconographic Tools?” Research Center for the Arts Review 2: 1–5.

Brier, Stephen. 2012. “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Accessed April 18, 2017. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/8.

Colburn, Alston. 2016. “Spreading Awareness of Digital Preservation and Copyright via Omeka-based Projects.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Assignments, March 28. Accessed April 29, 2017. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/spreading-awareness-of-digital-preservation-and-copyright-via-omeka-based-projects/.

Drucker, Johanna. 2013. “Is There a ‘Digital’ Art History?” Visual Resources, special issue on Digital Art History, edited by Murtha Baca and Anne Helmreich, 29, nos. 1–2 (Spring): 5–13.

Drucker, Johanna, Anne Helmreich, Matthew Lincoln, and Francesca Rose. 2015. “Digital Art History: The American Scene.” Perspective 2, December 7. Accessed October 18, 2017. http://perspective.revues.org/6021.

Fisher, Michelle Millar. 2016. “Case Studies and Examples for Evaluating Digital Scholarship.” CAA News Today, February 23. Accessed April 30, 2017. http://www.collegeart.org/news/2016/02/23/case-studies-and-examples-for-evaluating-digital-scholarship/.

Fletcher, Pamela. 2015. “Reflections on Digital Art History.” caa.reviews, June 18. Accessed April 15, 2017. doi: 10.3202/caa.reviews/2015/73.

Foucault, Michel. 1973. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences. New York: Vintage. OCLC 234203336.

Good, Jeff. 2002. “A Gentle Introduction to Metadata.” Accessed April 17, 2017. http://linguistics.berkeley.edu/~jcgood/bifocal/GentleMetadata.html.

Harris, Beth, and Steven Zucker. 2015. “Where is the pedagogy in digital art history?” Smarthistory Blog, July 13. Accessed 20 April 2017. https://smarthistoryblog.org/2015/07/13/where-is-the-pedagogy-in-digital-art-history/.

Iantorno, Luke A. 2014. “Introducing Digital Humanities Pedagogy.” CEA Critic 76, no. 2 (July): 140–146. https://doi.org/10.1353/cea.2014.0015.

Johanson, Chris, and Elaine Sullivan, with Janice Reiff, Diane Favro, Todd Presner, and Willeke Wendrich. 2012. “Teaching Digital Humanities through Digital Cultural Mapping.” In Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics, edited by Brett D. Hirsch, 121–150. Open Books Publishers. https://www.openbookpublishers.com/reader/161#page/1/mode/2up.

Kelly, T. Mills. 2013. Teaching History in the Digital Age, Digital Humanities Series. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/dh.12146032.0001.001.

Keramidas, Kimon. 2012. “WikiFAIL: Students and the Orthodoxy of Practice in the Classroom.” The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, Teaching Fails, May 7. Accessed May 2, 2017. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/wikifail-students-and-the-orthodoxy-of-practice-in-the-classroom/.

Keramidas, Kimon, and Nicola Sharratt. 2013. “Weaving Stories Between the Material, Immaterial and Ephemeral: Designing Digital Interactives for Socially Complex Objects in an exhibition Setting.” Mediacommons, The New Everyday, September 29. Accessed May 5, 2017. http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/pieces/weaving-stories-between-material-immaterial-and-ephemeral

Kilroy-Ewbank, Lauren. 2014. “Team-Based Learning in Art History: Pros and Cons.” lkilroyewbank.com. Accessed April 17, 2017. http://lkilroyewbank.org/lke-blog/team-based-learning-in-art-history-pros-and-cons/.

McClurken, Jeffrey W. 2010. “Teaching with Omeka.” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 9. Accessed April 20, 2017. http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/teaching-with-omeka/26078.

Mourer, Marissa. 2017. “A Subject Librarian’s Pedagogical Path in the Digital Humanities.” College and Undergraduate Libraries: 1–15. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2017.1336506.

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Posner, Miriam. 2016. “Up and Running with Omeka.net.” The Programming Historian. February 17. Last modified August 6, 2017. https://programminghistorian.org/lessons/up-and-running-with-omeka.

Posner, Miriam and Megan R. Brett. 2016. “Creating an Omeka Exhibit.” The Programming Historian. February 24. Last modified May 25, 2017. https://programminghistorian.org/lessons/creating-an-omeka-exhibit.

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Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. [2017?] “Omeka.” Accessed April 17, 2017. http://teachinghistory.org/digital-classroom/tech-for-teachers/25115.

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Spivey, Virginia B., and Renee McGarry. 2016. “Editor’s Introduction: Advancing SoTL-AH.” Art History Pedagogy and Practice 1, no. 1. Accessed February 28, 2017. http://academicworks.cuny.edu/ahpp/vol1/iss1/1.

Taube, Karl. 1993. Aztec and Maya Myths. Austin: University of Texas Press. OCLC 693779222.

Williams, Robert Lloyd. 2013. The Complete Codex Zouche-Nuttall: Mixtec Lineage Histories and Political Biographies. Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies. Austin: University of Texas Press. OCLC 811591352.

Zorich, Diane M. 2012. “Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship.” A Report to The Samuel H. Kress Foundation and The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University. May. http://www.kressfoundation.org/research/transitioning_to_a_digital_world/.

Appendix A: Brief Overview of Pre-Columbian Survey for Fall 2017

The idea to teach the class like an archaeological dig (in other words, backwards, beginning with the cultures we know most about that are closest to us in time) was borrowed and adapted from Dr. Cecelia F. Klein, Professor Emerita of Pre-Columbian Art History at UCLA.

 

Basic class info: The class meets for 110 minutes twice a week. It is capped at 20 students. There is no designated computer lab for the class, so students will bring their own laptops to complete activities.

 

Week 1: Introduction, General Cultural Overviews, the Spanish Conquests and the Problems with Using Mesoamerican Ethno-historical (Early Colonial) Sources

Activities:

  • Formation of Teams and Google Drive folders
  • Introduction to Crowdsourcing
  • Icebreaker/scavenger hunt activity on Pre-Columbian Art
  • Aztec human sacrifice annotation activity
  • Introduction of Thinglink

 

Week 2: Origins of the Aztecs and Their Capital City, Tenochtitlan

Activities:

  • Evaluation of online sources (example: websites on Aztec human sacrifice)

 

Week 3: The Aztec Templo Mayor and Imperial Ideologies

Activities:

  • Introduction to Metadata
  • Creating metadata for the Coyolxauhqui monolith
  • Templo Mayor scavenger hunt and discussion of copyrights and fair use

 

Week 4: The Post-Classic International Style and the Epiclassic; introduction to Omeka; trip to the Getty Center to View “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas,” on view 16 Sep 2017–28 January 2018.

Activities:

  • Introduction to the Codex Zouche-Nuttall
  • Introduction to Omeka
  • Creating metadata for single folio of the CZN

 

Week 5: Teotihuacan; Maya Divine Kingship

Activities:

  • Teotihuacan scavenger hunt and second discussion of copyrights and fair use
  • Thinglink Image Annotation exercise with Stela 16 at Tikal

 

Week 6: Maya Courtly Arts; the Olmecs

Activities:

  • Creating metadata for a Maya painted vessel
  • Creating of crowd-sourced study guide

 

Week 7: Midterm; Problems with Using Andean Ethno-historical (early colonial) Sources

Activities:

 

Week 8: Origins of the Inka and Their Capital City, Cusco; Inka Stonework and Textiles

Activities:

  • Thinglink Image Annotation exercise with Inka Textile/Stonework
  • Librarian Visits Classroom

 

Week 9: Tiwanaku and Chimu; the Moche; Trip to LACMA to view Ancient Americas Collection

Activities:

  • Scavenger Hunt at LACMA
  • Project Planning/Creation

 

Week 10: Moche Cont.; Paracas and Nazca.

Activities:

  • Creating metadata for a Moche portrait vessel
  • Revisiting Omeka in the Classroom

 

Week 11: Chavín; Indigenous Peoples After the Spanish Conquests

Activities:

  • Project Planning/Creation
  • Revisiting Omeka in the Classroom

 

Week 12: Pre-Columbian Cultures in Modern Times

Activities:

  • Creating of crowd-sourced study guide

 

Week 13: Work on Omeka Project

Activities:

  • Work on Omeka Project in class with team and individually

 

Week 14: Presentations

Activities:

  • Team and individual presentations

Appendix B. Rubric for Assessing the Usefulness and Validity of Online Sources

 

Dr. L. Kilroy-Ewbank

 

Adapted from several online sources, including http://library.unk.edu/assistance/rubric.pdf; http://libguides.snhu.edu/c.php?g=92303&p=2104295.
3 2 1
What is the purpose of the site? To inform and educate its audience. Bias free. To persuade the audience to think a certain way. Reveals a bias. To sell a product or idea for the author’s personal gain.
Who is the author? Author’s name is easy to locate. Author is clearly an authority on the subject (i.e. his or her credentials are sufficient). Author’s name is there, but s/he may or may not be an authority on the subject. Unclear credentials. Unknown author.
What organization is it affiliated with (if any)? A well-known respectable organization (e.g., NEH) is clearly identified as a sponsor of the site. Sponsoring organization identifiable, but its association or reputation with topic is questionable/unclear. No sponsoring organization identified.
Who is the intended audience of the site? Clearly scholars or experts in a specific field (e.g., pre-Columbian archaeology, Renaissance art history). Appears to be the general public, ranging from experts to novices. Unclear who the intended audience is.
Is the website factual? Many facts provided. Website free from opinions or bias. Appears to be factual, but the author’s opinions are frequently revealed. Seems potentially propagandistic. Facts are questionable, based mostly on the author’s opinions. Explicitly propagandistic.
Is the evidence clearly cited, and drawn from a variety of sources? Are captions provided for images, with source information? Evidence is clearly cited, and draws from both primary and secondary sources (or a mixture of relevant sources). Clear where most information came from. The sources are from credible places (reputable journals, libraries, digital platforms). Direct links to original information/sources. Images are captioned, with their source identifiable. Evidence is somewhat clear, and the author draws from variety of sources. The sources seem to be from credible places, but it is not entirely clear. Does not provide direct links to original information/sources. Images have captions, but it is not clear what their source is. Evidence is unclear, and the sources are unclear, if cited at all. No explanation or identification of the sources of evidence. Images have no clear captions of sources.
How would you describe the writing style and organization of the site? Written with clarity and simplicity. Organized effectively. Uses professional language. No advertisements. Written mostly with clarity and simplicity. Organization is effective in most areas. 1-2 advertisements. Writing style is embarrassing, with many errors. Many typos. Haphazard organization. Lots of advertisements.
When was it created? Is it current? Date of creation included.

Current Event: updated within the last month.

Historical Topic: updated within the last year.

Date of creation maybe included.

Current Event: updated 1–6 months ago.

Historical Topic: updated 1–2 years ago.

No date is shown or information is outdated.

Current Event: more than 6 months old.

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First and foremost, I would like to thank my students over the years who have offered valuable feedback on either my Pre-Columbian art history class or my use of and experimentation with digital art history tools and methods. Special thanks are also offered to Jennifer Smith, Kristen Chiem, Lisa Boutin, and Elena Fitzpatrick Sifford, all of whom read and commented on drafts of this article.

About the Author

Lauren G. Kilroy-Ewbank is an Associate Professor of Art History at Pepperdine University. She teaches a wide range of subjects, including Pre-Columbian, Latin American, Medieval, Early Modern, and Native American art history. Her research focuses on devotional imagery and portraiture in the Spanish Americas, digital art history pedagogy, and successful strategies for teaching large-lecture courses. She is also a contributing editor for Mesoamerican, Spanish Colonial, and Native American art and board member for Smarthistory.org.

Screenshot of Gallatin ePortfolio template, displaying the main navigational elements and the homepage welcome message.
2

ePortfolios and Individualized, Interdisciplinary Learning: A Case Study

Abstract

Individualized, interdisciplinary degree programs carry a unique set of challenges and opportunities that can be addressed by ePortfolios. This is especially true for New York University’s (NYU) Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where students must construct their own academic concentrations while taking courses in most of the seventeen schools that comprise the University. In this article, we describe an ongoing project to explore the use of ePortfolios as a means to create coherence for students across courses and semesters, and to help them articulate an intellectual and professional agenda through synthesis and reflection. The project spans three distinct iterations of ePortfolios, and describes how lessons learned from two of the previous iterations helped guide faculty and staff in the development and implementation of a new ePortfolio template, which is currently being piloted. We explore how an overly wrought first iteration led to an excessively focused second version, and finally, a third iteration, that may be just right.

Introduction: The Origins of a Gallatin ePortfolio

The Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University (Gallatin) offers a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in individualized study. The ePortfolio project focuses on the BA program. Students at Gallatin develop their own programs of study by combining Gallatin’s core curriculum of small, interdisciplinary seminars and workshops with courses in other NYU schools. Additionally, students pursue independent studies (one­-on­-one projects with faculty), tutorials (small group projects), private lessons, and internships. This course of study culminates in a final oral exam, called the colloquium, in which students demonstrate their knowledge about a select number of significant texts.

With just over 1,600 undergraduate students and approximately 150 graduate students, Gallatin is a relatively small school housed within a large research university. Being an individualized study major in a small school that is part of a very large university, on a distributed urban and global campus, can be an isolating experience. Because of this, Gallatin has used active, focused faculty advising as a cornerstone of its curriculum from the very first formative years as a program in 1972, and then as a division in 1976. But in 1976, Gallatin had only 200 students (London 1992, 7). By 2008, with a much larger student body, there was agreement among faculty members that students could benefit from a platform that encouraged reflection and collaboration.

This paper outlines three distinct ePortfolio platforms the school developed in an attempt to facilitate this student need for reflection and collaboration. The first was a shared, multi­-university initiative to build out the promising Sakai OAE (Open Academic Environment) into an academic­-social-networking system with ePortfolios as a main component. The second was based entirely on Google Drive, and centered around the collection of course assets. And the final, still ongoing, platform is built around WordPress, which attempts to account for the limitations of the the first two.

During the Fall of 2009, several factors led to the consideration of an ePortfolio for Gallatin students: social media; advancements in ePortfolio and learning management system (LMS) software; digitally native content; and the expansion of the arts and experiential learning at Gallatin. Moreover, many students were coming upon their culminating experience, the colloquium, underprepared, specifically in the integration of coursework spanning their entire academic career. Students, now accustomed to platforms like Facebook and Google Docs, were wondering why there was not an academic corollary.

During a focus group with students concerning the enhancement of the school’s LMS, several ePortfolio-­related themes emerged. Where students used to be satisfied focusing on their individual concentrations and learning goals, they were now interested in community. Several students at the Fall 2009 LMS focus group asked for a way to find other students with similar academic interests. Additionally, participants mentioned how they would like to share their academic work across courses, in ways that would surface meaningful connections between students. These students’ comments were aligned with the research on ePortfolios. Bryant and Chittum (2013, 189­197) note that successful ePortfolios enable students to share and collaborate on work spanning their entire program. This finding is consistent with trends in ePortfolio use at the time, where less course-­ and program­-based, and more collaborative ePortfolios were gaining in popularity (Brown, Chen, and Gordon 2012, 129-­138).

This focus group conversation became one about effective ePortfolios. The students recognized the need for a tool to capture, synthesize, and share their academic careers, a way to “utilize Facebook[-like]…prefab micro-­sites…So that people could upload different documents” (personal communication). Several students advocated for a platform that encourages self­-assessment and peer assessment, foundational elements of good ePortfolio design (Wade, Abrami, and Sclater 2005, under “Student Self­-regulation”).

The author, Likos, in conversation with the faculty, was also coming to a similar conclusion: a tool was needed that could help scaffold the development of the individualized concentration; encourage the synthesis of experiential, performative and academic learning; and allow for the communication and articulation of the students’ work. Hayward et al. explain how ePortfolios can help achieve just these goals, emphasizing the tool’s ability to help integrate different modes of learning (2008, 140–­159). Additionally, the ePortfolio is specifically valuable in interdisciplinary studies. Field and Stowe explain that the “the longitudinal nature of the process,” which provides explication of an entire learning journey, “can be used effectively to validate the interdisciplinary process and to communicate the process to internal, and external audiences” (2002, 268).

As a result of our student focus group, faculty discussion, and research on ePortfolios, a specific articulation of the requirements for a Gallatin ePortfolio platform emerged:

  1. The system must allow for text­-based and digitally native content.
  2. Assets must be flexibly shareable—to students in a course, the school, the University, and the outside world.
  3. Assets must be taggable in a manner that encourages searching, browsing, filtering, and sorting.
  4. The ePortfolio must evolve from a student’s first year through their life after college.
  5. The platform must allow for the creation of attractive public-facing websites.

A landscape survey of existing software at the time found that none could satisfy all of these criteria. Most ePortfolio platforms were still focused on assessment (Clark and Eynon 2009, 18­–23), which was not the core requirement of a Gallatin ePortfolio. With this in mind, we broadened our search beyond specific ePortfolio software to platforms that could act more as a development toolkit. This led to Gallatin’s, and later NYU’s, significant engagement with Sakai.

Sakai OAE and ATLAS: A Grand Vision Leads to Loss of Focus

Just as the benefits of an a ePortfolio system were becoming clear to the Gallatin community, so too were these benefits being recognized by another department at the University, the Liberal Studies Program. Confronted with similar requirements, an ePortfolio project was initiated in 2008 with the help of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Digital Humanities Start-­Up Grant (Apert 2011). Like Gallatin, the Liberal Studies Program was aiming for a system that would support content authoring, management and tagging, private­ and public-facing ePortfolios, and academic networking. Gallatin was thus a natural partner, and joined the initiative in 2008. By 2009, Liberal Studies and Gallatin were joined by 8 additional NYU entities.[1]

With this infusion of interest and capital, a new ambition grew, and a new, more robust platform was needed to meet these ambitions. Liberal Studies, already using Sakai CLE (Collaboration and Learning Environment) for the first iteration of its ePortfolio, recognized the potential of the then nascent Sakai OAE (Open Academic Environment). The promise of OAE was a user­-, group­-, and content-­centered system. As Apert explains, Sakai OAE “uses the…concept of groups to replace the more rigid structure of sites in traditional learning management systems (LMS)….In Sakai OAE…tools are ‘widgetized,’ meaning they exist as free-­floating modules that can be pulled into any page” (2011). This is in contrast to Sakai CLE, and most LMSs at the time, which were built with the course at the core.

After several months of collaboration, a working group of faculty and staff members representing the ten schools and departments committed to this project were so enthusiastic about the promise of a user- ­and content-­centered academic networking platform, that by mid­-2010 NYU had become the most significant partner in a multi-university alliance to build the next generation LMS (Hill 2012). Along with Cambridge University, the University of California, Berkeley, Indiana University, Georgia State University, and Charles Sturt University, NYU shared a seat on the Sakai OAE steering committee, and NYU’s Chief Digital Officer, David Ackerman, was appointed to the position of Sakai Board Chair.

But by the end of 2010, this was already something very different than the ePortfolio project on which Gallatin had first partnered with NYU’s Liberal Studies Program. The Gallatin ePortfolio had very specific requirements around content and sharing, which though part of the roadmap for Sakai 3, would now have to share space with all of the traditional functions of an LMS. With Sakai CLE representing five percent of the higher­-education LMS market at this time, legacy tool support and development was no small matter (Green 2013, 23). As a member of the NYU Sakai 3 working group, Likos had to collaborate with representatives from nine other schools and departments at NYU to set priorities that would then compete with those from the six other Sakai steering committee member universities. Predictably, this produced a very large set of requirements.

By Spring 2011, nearly two years after the first discussions about ePortfolios for Gallatin students occurred, the first beta iteration of NYU’s version of Sakai 3, ATLAS (Advanced Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship) network, was running. Though our initial plan was to help undergraduates synthesize and share their concentrations, we decided our first pilot would be with graduate students for two reasons. First, this initial iteration of ATLAS had severe performance and feature shortcomings. It simply could not handle more than dozens of users at a time, and many of the features supporting content creation, tagging, and sharing were not yet built. The second reason was that our graduate students were beginning to ask for a simplified platform for finding each other. That is, they were happy to have an enhanced directory of students that could be filtered according to academic interest. Given the limitations of ATLAS, it made more sense to pilot a more condensed feature set to a smaller group of 150 students. While supporting this pilot for graduate students, we continued to push for development of features that would turn this into a true ePortfolio for our BA students.

By Spring 2012, with the 1.1 version of ATLAS released, we were not significantly closer. The platform was now more capable of handling larger numbers of users, the content authoring interface was better, but it was not an ePortfolio. The centrifugal force of multiple schools’ and universities’ competing requirements and features continually pulled at the center until there was barely a center at all. In the end, it was neither a fully functional LMS or an ePortfolio. This, combined with the emergence of Google Apps for Education and the Universities’ adoption of it, and new LMSs like Canvas and D2L, spelled the end for ATLAS and the larger Sakai OAE project. By the Spring of 2012, all of the remaining large university funding partners left the project, and NYU soon followed suit, officially sun­-setting the pilot on January 22, 2013.

In its final iteration, Gallatin’s version of ATLAS included academic profile information for 150 graduate students, as well as a tag cloud (see Figure 1) to help visualize the weight of academic interest areas. It contained no other ePortfolio assets, though technically, it could have. Our assessment of the platform was that it failed in at least some way in each of the five categories of requirements initially laid out. The most successful feature was the academic interest tag cloud, and if extended to content, as originally envisioned, it could have been a valuable way for students to share and collaborate.

Screenshot of Atlas tag cloud for Gallatin MA students, showing the top 20 tags, with Cultural Studies heavily weighted in the center.

Figure 1: ATLAS tag cloud.

There are many lessons to be learned from Gallatin’s Sakai OEA/ATLAS journey, foremost of which is that Gallatin handed over its agency in developing an ePortfolio platform in the hope of being part of something that would be much more. The project grew so large, so quickly, that the competing requirements of multiple universities and schools became increasingly difficult to manage and fund. Another takeaway was that the mass of the “academic social networking” feature set was so great that it pulled almost all the development and pedagogical energy into its gravity well. The promise of a “Facebook for the academy” was so alluring that we shifted too much attention from the core elements of a successful student ePortfolio.

Google Drive: Familiarity without Scalability

It was from this place that a re-conceived ePortfolio platform was born. In the spring of 2013, a reconfigured Gallatin steering committee was assembled to review the failures of the ATLAS project and to recommend a new way forward. One of the first issues we uncovered was that ATLAS privileged technology over good pedagogical design. We hoped the technology would allow for robust connections among students without specific prescriptions, as was the case in other social networks. The idea was that students would upload any assets they thought relevant to their concentrations, and the metadata would do the magic of surfacing the relevant, connected information. This proved to be technically very difficult, and not clear at all to the student participants. Additionally, Gallatin had prescriptions that could and should be applied to ePortfolios:

  • Course documents: syllabi, papers, readings.
  • The booklist and rationale: documents prepared in advance of the colloquium that contain 20 to 25 texts that cover multiple disciplines and historical periods related to the student concentration, and a five­- to eight-­page essay that articulates the central themes that are represented by the booklist.
  • The Intellectual Autobiography and Plan for Concentration (IAPC): a two-­ to three-­page essay, completed at the end of a student’s sophomore year, in which students reflect on their educational progress and describe their areas of interest.
  • Plans of Study: forms filled out every semester outlining the students’ registration plans for the following semester, and how these relate to their individualized course of study.

Starting from these assets, the committee recognized an opportunity to focus the scope of a project that had become so large with ATLAS to a simpler set of requirements. This new conception asked, what is the easiest and most stable system that students can use to store and share their course and concentration documents? Taking this together with the original prerequisites from 2009, and the lessons learned from ATLAS, an updated requirement set asked that:

  1. The system allows for text-­based, as well as multimedia content.
  2. All assets be shareable to faculty, advisers, other students, and the public.
  3. Assets in the ePortfolio be accessible to students after they graduate.
  4. The platform already be built, stable, technically vetted, and inexpensive.

Taking these into account, it was a very easy decision to pilot a new ePortfolio project with Google Drive. NYU’s investment in Google Apps for Education was increasing, and a University­-led ePortfolio landscape survey indicated that Google Drive was a viable ePortfolio alternative for simple projects. Additionally, it was a familiar product, with a support and training structure in place. In terms of storage and performance, we already knew that it could handle thousands of students and assets, and we knew those assets could be securely shared with individuals and groups using existing NYU credentials. Furthermore, there was no direct cost to Gallatin. The platform and the central support was free, and students would keep their Google accounts, including their ePortfolios, after graduation. With the benefits of a Google Drive ePortfolio clear, and the cost to adoption low, it was decided that a new pilot would launch in the Fall of 2013. Gallatin would pre-­populate the following folders and documents in all students’ drives:

  • Courses
    • Syllabi
    • Papers
    • Readings
  • Brainstorming
    • Bibliography (citations of key texts)
    • “Concentration” document (notes from adviser meetings, thoughts on classes, ideas about one’s concentration)
    • Plans of Study (saved copies of the Plan of Study forms)

With both the ATLAS and the Google pilots, the steering committee considered making the ePortfolio mandatory, but both times it was decided that the administrative burden on faculty was too great. With ATLAS, the ePortfolio component was not well defined, and the system not robust enough. The Google Drive ePortfolio was well defined, and the system was robust enough, but if we were going to utilize course registration holds—or use some other constraint—it meant either the faculty advisers or some other academic staff would need to review and approve ePortfolios. It was felt that Gallatin did not at the time have the resources to incent, train, and support the faculty and staff to perform this task well. Instead, beginning in the Spring of 2013, we undertook a marketing and training campaign. This included presentations at faculty meetings, online video demonstrations, and orientation training sessions for students.

The technical administration of the ePortfolios was fairly simple, but not straightforward. Because the University’s implementation of Google Apps could not ingest school and class directory information, there was no way to automate the group creation of the “Gallatin ePortfolio,” or easily generate unique ePortfolio URLs. This all required additional manual work.

In early Fall 2013, the first set of student ePortfolios were provisioned. These included all 269 Gallatin first­-year students. An email from the dean was sent to these students with a link to their ePortfolios and instructions on how to use them. Simultaneously, messaging went out to faculty encouraging them to remind students about the ePortfolio. The same basic structure for the ePortfolios remained in place through the Fall 2014 semester, but by the third semester of the pilot we had added sophomores and juniors.

From the student perspective, the system worked well. Students that chose to create an ePortfolio reported no issues creating and storing content. There was also very little student training required. But by the second semester, the University began to have trouble provisioning the accounts and setting permissions. The Google Apps administrators had to do this with a series of scripts, and there was concern that any change Google made to the product, which was not uncommon, could break the scripts. Additionally, it was at this time that we realized there were little to no options for getting data from the system. Even something as simple as getting a count of how many students were placing content into their ePortfolios was only possible by manually, visually checking each student’s ePortfolio folder. In the end, we used a randomly generated number set to choose a statistically significant sample of ePortfolios to manually check for content. By the final pilot semester, Fall 2014, only 1.9% of students had placed any content into their ePortfolios.

In summation, the Google Drive ePortfolio platform failed in several areas. Most compelling was the modest adoption rate, but the difficulty in extracting metrics from the system, and increasing difficulty provisioning accounts and permissions were also important. For these reasons, it was decided that Fall 2014 would mark the end of this pilot. Though there were technical limitations, it was the adoption rate that had the most impact in our final assessment. In discussions with students and faculty, it became clear that this pilot offered little in the way of incentive or injunction. Their use rate was very low in part because there was no appealing public-­facing aspect of the ePortfolios, but even more significantly because of the way the ePortfolios were presented and taught. It had been decided to market the ePortfolio to students and faculty, instead of train faculty to actively engage with students around the ePortfolio in their courses; we now see that decision as a mistake. These two key issues we hoped to address in the next pilot.

WordPress: Re­-centering on Reflection

Taking into account the lessons learned from our ATLAS and Google Drive experiences, we are now in the midst of our third iteration of ePortfolios at Gallatin, this time using NYU’s WordPress installation, Web Publishing, which launched in August of 2014. Like Google Drive, Web Publishing comes with NYU IT support and training, provides adequate storage for our multimedia needs, is integrated with our user-­authentication system, and is a no-­cost, portable platform. Unlike Google Drive, however, Web Publishing enables us to create a template tailored to the needs of our students, so that we are now able to easily deploy sites as needed. More important than the authentication and storage benefits, however, is the built-­in reflective space Web Publishing offers, as well as the ability to create visually appealing, customizable, public-­facing websites with granular control over visibility. Our hope is that the personalization achieved through reflective blog posts and customization features will give students a strong sense of ownership over their ePortfolios, thereby incentivizing adoption rates.

With a renewed focus on reflection, the committee has decided to diverge from the structure adapted for Google Drive, which functioned primarily as a repository of work. Our new template thus contains areas for four main types of reflective content: the “about me” bio page, the course descriptions and expectations blog, the end-of-semester reflections, and an annotated bibliography (see Figure 2).

Screenshot of Gallatin ePortfolio template, displaying the main navigational elements and the homepage welcome message.

Figure 2: The Gallatin ePortfolio template.

In addition to these pre­-packaged content areas, students are encouraged to customize their ePortfolios in order to document all of their Gallatin­-related experiences, including internships, study-­abroad, and extracurricular activities, thereby creating a comprehensive repository that gives viewers both a general sense of the breadth and scope of a student’s intellectual trajectory, and the ability to drill down into the details of a particular term, course, or activity.

Participating faculty are being asked to integrate several activities into their courses that are designed to both kick­start student engagement with their ePortfolios, and to encourage students to begin thinking metacognitively about themselves as learners. Advisers are participating in the pilot by asking their advisees to see their ePortfolios. We believe that active involvement on the part of faculty and advisers will be a critical component to the success of the program.

On the first day of class, faculty ask their students to write a short bio for the About Me page. Not only is the ability to write a compelling bio a skill that will benefit students personally and professionally, it is also an exercise in narrating selfhood that should always precede engagement with digital identities, of which ePortfolios are a part. Moreover, sharing and discussing bios in a classroom environment promotes the development of learning communities that are so important to students’ mental health and wellness, and so critical to long-­term academic success. Early in the semester, students are also asked to write a blog post containing the course descriptions for each class they take, accompanied by their expectations for these courses. By doing so, students will not only create a chronological record of the courses they take, they will be setting up personal learning goals that will help sustain their focus throughout the semester. These initial reflective posts are then connected to the reflections they are asked to write on the last day of class. In their “end­-of-­semester reflections,” students are asked to compare what they had expected to learn with what they actually learned, and to make a list of key texts from the semester. The blog is a space to assist students in reflecting on their learning as they develop over the course of each term, and to help suggest a direction for the coming term. Such reflections will allow students to document the evolution of their intellectual pathways, to make connections, and to generate questions for future research and for their advisers.

These reflections will act as a pre-­writing activity, providing material for the IAPC, the booklist/rationale, and the colloquium, all of which require students to articulate their research interests and to identify thematic correspondence between the various areas of study. This, ultimately, is at the core of what we are trying to achieve: to help our students connect the dots. As the “school of individualized study,” Gallatin requires its students to design their own curriculum, in conjunction with an adviser. This self-­directed learning model empowers students to actively engage in the development of their own education, and allows them to take a wide variety of courses, both at Gallatin and at other NYU schools (and beyond). But this learning model also comes with unique challenges. Because students are exploring many different subject areas, it is often difficult for them to articulate the connections and/or tensions between them. Milestone requirements, such as the IAPC due at the end of sophomore year, and the booklist/rationale required before the final senior colloquium, have been put in place as scaffolding, preparing students for the kind of scholarly synthesis that will be expected of them during their final oral examination. Yet these milestones are themselves rigorous requirements that will also, we believe, benefit from the kind of sustained reflection built into the design of our ePortfolios. The designated Annotated Bibliography page, for instance, is something students can build up over time, and can eventually become a direct precursor to the booklist and rationale.

Taken as a whole, the design of our ePortfolio template works to engage students in an ongoing reflective process that can best be described as active, inquiry-­based learning. As Wozniak writes, “Reflection connects the components of the inquiry cycle and serves as the catalyst to move to the next level of learning and discovery. Information is transformed to knowledge and fragmented pieces of knowledge are connected through reflection” (2012, 221). Used as an advising tool, Gallatin’s ePortfolio provides a collaborative space in which to make those connections. By incrementally archiving, curating, and reflecting upon their coursework, students will essentially be self-­scaffolding their learning, progressively building toward a stronger understanding of their own concentration. Wozniak also notes that reflection promotes integrative learning, a pedagogical approach in which students apply “multiple areas of knowledge and multiple modes of inquiry” (2012, 210) to real-­world situations: “These learning experiences consider the whole student and foster lifelong learning skills. They engage students in making their own learning connections between their courses, professional career goals, co­-curricular activities, campus involvement, community service, job experiences, and personal interests” (2012, 210). An integrative learning approach that considers the whole student is foundational to the mission at Gallatin, making a reflective ePortfolio system a natural addition to our program.

In order to ensure the successful implementation of an ePortfolio program that would be both meaningful for students and helpful to their advisers, we opted for an incremental, three-­phase roll out plan:

3-Phase Implementation Plan
Phase Phase Title Duration Dates Primary Purpose
1 Targeted Pilot One Semester 12/2015 to 5/2016
  • Assess the usability of the WordPress template
  • Obtain student feedback
2 Extended Pilot Two Years 9/2016 to 5/2018
  • Assess the adoption rate by students and advisors
  • Evaluate the success of the pedagogical goals of the program
3 Gallatin­Wide Implementation Indefinite 9/2018 +
  • Implement a successful school­wide ePortfolio program

We have completed Phase 1, the Targeted Pilot, which included eight students hand­-selected by their advisers. Our initial assessment of the Targeted Pilot is based on attendance, anecdotal feedback, questionnaire results (see Appendix), and completion rates. Although attendance at our group meetings was low, students responded positively to both the platform and the program. Our students had varying degrees of technological skills, yet all of them felt that WordPress was easy to learn and has long­-term value. Participants responded favorably to the template’s design. Most of the students commented that the information architecture was intuitive, and several participants confirmed that the ePortfolio should be a space for highly curated materials, rather than a repository for all content, which may be best suited for Google Drive.

In terms of the ePortfolio program itself, the belief that a school­-wide digital portfolio service would be valuable to Gallatin students was unanimous. Our primary purpose was to equip students with a tool with which to reflect on their progress, map out the next steps in their plan of study, and build towards future milestones. And to that end, the pilot succeeded. Not only did students report that an ePortfolio would have helped them complete specific milestones, they also expressed the belief that communication with their advisers would be improved. The surprising discovery was that students are increasingly expected to include ePortfolios in their application materials for graduate schools, internships, and other professional opportunities. This anecdotal information is confirmed in a study by Fowler (2012), who notes that an ePortfolio provides a better demonstration of student learning and skills than a standard resume because it represents a range of work, contextualized over time, and because it can be customized for multiple audiences. Our students likewise saw an opportunity either to use their Gallatin ePortfolio for such applications, or to become familiar with the process in order to create a separate ePortfolio.

Based on our assessment of the Targeted Pilot, we have entered Phase 2 of our implementation plan, which will run from September 2016 to May 2018. Our Extended Pilot currently includes our entire incoming first­-year cohort, as well as 31 transfer students, for a total of 328 students and 19 faculty. Our ultimate goal is to seamlessly integrate ePortfolios into Gallatin’s curriculum, such that the incoming class of 2016 and all successive cohorts will view their ePortfolios as a dynamic, evolving, and natural component of the individualized and life­-long learning goals at the core of Gallatin’s philosophy.

Conclusion

There have been vast cultural and technological developments since our first discussions about ePortfolios in 2009, including advancements in open­-source technology, broader use of website building platforms, and shifting boundaries between social media and other web-authoring sites. These developments, in conjunction with an increasingly technologically sophisticated and visually literate student population, build an even stronger case for the implementation of ePortfolios at Gallatin. Having learned much over seven years of exploration, experimentation, and investment in ePortfolios, we have refocused our energy on the individualized philosophy at the core of Gallatin, prioritizing user experience over technical sophistication; focused, purposeful design over broad, generalized application; and, most importantly, pedagogy over technology. The emphasis on curation over archive and reflection over assessment promotes the kind of inquiry­-based, integrative learning that is aligned with Gallatin’s mission, and that comprise the most promising pedagogical aspects of ePortfolios. Although early in our third ePortfolio iteration at Gallatin, we are encouraged by the enthusiasm with which our pilot participants received their customizable digital showcases, and hopeful that by the time our incoming class of 2016 becomes our graduating class of 2020, ePortfolios will have become a part of the fabric of Gallatin life.

Notes

[1] The College of Nursing, the Faculty of Arts and Science, NYU Abu Dhabi, NYU Wagner, the NYU School of Medicine, NYU Steinhardt, NYU Information Technology Services, and the NYU Libraries (Apert 2011).

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Brown, Gary, Helen L. Chen, and Aifong Gordon. 2012. “The Annual AAEEBL Survey at Two: Looking Back and Looking Ahead.” International Journal of ePortfolio 2 (2): 129­38. http://theijep.com/pdf/IJEP93.pdf.

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Hayward, Lorna M., Betsey Blackmer, Alicia Canali, Rosemarie Dimarco, Alicia Russell, Susan Aman, Jessica Rossi, and Lucia Sloane. (2008). “Reflective electronic portfolios: A design process for integrating liberal and professional studies and experiential education.” Journal of Allied Health 37 (3), 140­159.

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Wade, Anne, Philip C. Abrami, and Jennifer Sclater. 2005. “An Electronic Portfolio to Support Learning.” Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology 31 (3). https://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/26489/19671.

Wozniak, Nancy McCoy. 2012. “Enhancing Inquiry, Evidence­-Based Reflection, and Integrative Learning with the Lifelong ePortfolio Process: The Implementation of Integrative ePortfolios at Stony Brook University.” Journal of Educational Technology Systems 41 (3): 209­30. doi:10.2190/ET.41.3.b. EBSCO (ATT 88230618).

Appendix


In response to prompt, “Please check off all areas of the ePortfolio that you worked on,” 83% checked homepage, about me, and courses pages.
In response to a question about how much time students spent on their ePortfolios, 83% indicated 2 to 5 hours.

In response to the question, “Did you feel as though the time spent was useful,” 67% checked “yes.”

In response to the question, “Was it difficult for you to develop your ePortfolio,” 83% checked “no.”

Students elaborate on answers to Q4, citing platform limitations, prior experience with WordPress, and time investment as considerations.

In response to a question about barriers to engagement, 100% said “lack of time,” while “unfamiliarity with WordPress” and lack of interest/motivation were also cited.

In response to a question about how to increase engagement, students cited deadlines, mandates, starting early, and making it more professional.

In response to the question, “Did you use the resources at https://wp.nyu.edu/gallatin­eportfolios/,” 83% indicated “yes.”

In response to the question, “Do you think the portfolio should be mandatory for all students,” 33% said “yes,” 17% said “no,” and 50% said “other.”

Additional comments: other systems for saving work, ePortfolios should be mandatory, and favorable thoughts about the design.

About the Authors

Nick Likos is NYU Gallatin School’s Chief Information Officer. He is responsible for the oversight of technology, operations, and compliance. Likos’ career has spanned fifteen years as a leader in for­-profit and nonprofit management, focusing on the efficient use of educational technologies. Likos’ most recent work has been in the academic social networking sphere, developing strategies and systems for integrating pedagogical and social technologies. His research interests include experiential mediation, interface, actor network theory and boundary theory.

Jenny Kijowski is NYU Gallatin’s Educational Technologist. She is responsible for facilitating the development of pedagogically driven, technology­-enhanced teaching practices in the classroom and beyond. She previously taught English Literature, Creative Writing, and Composition courses at BMCC and Queens College, and received her doctorate in English from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research examines war, trauma, gender, and technology.

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